Are we at war with ISIS? Does it make a difference what you call it?

Summary:  Today Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) looks at our conflict with the Islamic State. What kind of conflict is this? What is the nature of our foe? Victory becomes a matter of luck without answers to these questions.  {2nd of 2 posts today}.

What's in a name?


Does it make any difference what you call it? Yes, because what you call it affects how you think about it. Here’s just one example, from John Basil Utley’ “12 Reasons America Doesn’t Win Its Wars” in The American Conservative: “During wartime who dares question almost any Pentagon cost ‘to defend America’?”

Sun Tzu suggested, in the opening lines of The Art of War, that “War is a matter of vital importance to the state, the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.” (Griffith trans., p. 63.)

It follows, then, that if what you’re looking at isn’t a matter of survival of the state, it isn’t war. Can you, with a straight face, claim that the United States is engaged with an existential enemy outside of its own borders? 

So if it isn’t war, how should we deal with it? Well, let’s look at what one of our opponents is doing (one can have “opponents” in many fields other than war). The title of this article from today’s New York Times pretty much tells the story: “Offering Services, ISIS Ensconces Itself in Seized Territories.”

The group is offering reliable, if harsh, security; providing jobs in decimated economies; and projecting a rare sense of order in a region overwhelmed by conflict … “It is not our life, all the violence and fighting and death,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, like others from areas run by the Islamic State, so as not to anger the jihadists. “But they got rid of the tyranny of the Arab rulers.”

Not how they see the Islamic State
Not how they see the Islamic State.

The result is that increasing numbers of inhabitants — probably too early to call most of them “citizens” — of the Islamic State have come to identify with it and become willing to fight for it, or at least fight to prevent the return of conditions that caused it to exist in the first place. If this seems incomprehensible, recall that the Russian people, few of whom were dedicated communists — fought heroically and successfully to defend their homeland from Nazi invasion.

ISIS passports

Boyd noted that the best way to ingrain oneself in the emotions of the population is to immerse your movement in the matrix of the population (Patterns of Conflict 95)…

  • Guerrillas must establish implicit connections or bonds with people and countryside. In other words …
  • Guerrillas must be able to blend into the emotional-cultural-intellectual environment of people until they become one with the people. In this sense …
  • People feelings and thoughts must be guerrilla feeling and thoughts while guerrilla feelings and thoughts become people feelings and thoughts; people aspirations must be guerrilla aspirations while guerrilla aspirations become people aspirations; people goals must be guerrilla goals while guerrilla goals become people goals. Result …
  • Guerrillas become indistinguishable from people while government is isolated from people.

While the IS may still be a long way from this, they seem to have an appreciation for its importance. I would argue that their success at this exercise in nation building will determine whether they will be able to withstand the counterattacks that are coming. Schwerpunkt.

While we proclaim “war on terror,” and lob missiles at them from the comfort and safety of drone control centers, the terrorists are on the ground, with the people, providing services and security.

“Now there is more security and freedom, no arrests, no harassment, no concrete barriers and no checkpoints where we used to spend hours to get into the city,” said Mohamed Al-Dulaimi of the jihadist-controlled city of Falluja.

“What will happen if the militias enter Falluja?” he said. “We will take our guns and fight them, not because we are ISIS, but because the militias will kill us all.”

About the author

Ph.D. Mathematics.  Colonel, USAF, retired.  Long-time editor of the original Defense and the National Interest website (archived here; others may be phishing sites — exercise caution), certified yoga instructor (RYT 200), colleague of John Boyd, and blogs at Slightly East of New.  Chet was an Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Quantitative Methods at Kennesaw St. University in Atlanta, and author of…

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23 thoughts on “Are we at war with ISIS? Does it make a difference what you call it?

  1. Another excellent article by FM. Despite his ridicule of my point that America no longer fights traditional land wars where the goal involves capturing territory and defeating mass enemy mechanized infantry, the distinction twixt traditional large-scale land wars and America’s current military operations really does matter.
    It matters because America’s military is (despite lip service to COIN) essentially still set up fight WW II — a classic traditional large-scale land war. This is mechanized Napoleonic conflict on a grand scale.
    Current military conflicts around the world by and large don’t use these kinds of traditional Euro-American fighting forces anymore. For example: most first world countries have abandoned forced conscription of millions of soldiers, no longer seek to amass thousands of tanks or thousands of bombers or thousands of fighter planes against one another; current military conflicts no longer depend on directing mass fire on target (as Napolean pointed out, in traditional European warfare, artillery was the great killer). Current military conflicts no longer mobilize aircraft carrier groups to battle one another (since America currently has the only operational aircraft carrier groups on the seas, that’s true by tautology. Russia’s aircarft carriers are rusting and no longer seaworthy, China’s single aircraft carrier is not deployed as part of a carrier battle group, and Great Britain’s lone aircraft carrier has not been deployed as part of a battle group since the Falklands War).
    Most civilian casualties in the period from the 1790s to the 1940s resulted from artillery or aerial bombing. Most civilian casualties in current 4GW wars result from internecine conflicts involving death squads, ethnic cleansing, starvation, and IEDs.
    As Fred on Everything has remarked, America’s military is admirably constituted to fight WW II or martian invaders…just not our current spate of military conflicts. I think this matters, because unless America changes the composition and attitude and training of its army and navy and air force significantly, we are going to wind up with the military equivalent of a hammer, to which every solution will be (militarily speaking) to pound nails.
    Arguably dismantling most of the U.S. military and funding a range of peace corps-type initiatives would do a lot more to solve today’s 4GW conflicts than the ridiculous new laser beam death rays or particle beam weapons or hypersonic railguns America is currently equipping our military with.
    Short version: to use Star Trek terminology, America has lots of phasers and photon torpedos, but what we really need is a Prime Directive.

    1. Looking at the Iraqi conflict, most civilian casualties (seems to me) arise from the breakdown of normal social/civilization structure/infrastructure; interruptions in the availability of the clean water supply, electric power, transportation, communication, etc. leading to epidemics, lack of availability of medical care, intermittent delivery of food, inability to store food between deliveries, lack of effective climate control, etc. etc. etc.
      And this in a nation which is, as far as I can see never having visited the place, much less reliant on a complex and vulnerable set of interacting parts to keep it running than current continental America.

    2. gzuckier,

      “much less reliant on a complex and vulnerable set of interacting parts to keep it running than current continental America.”

      That is a common view. Until we have a real-world event that tests the resilience of a developed nation, we can only guess. I suspect that a 1st world nation is less vulnerable to disruption of its systems due to their better construction and greater redundancy — and larger reserves (fuel, food, etc). Like better pollution controls, it’s something we buy with our greater wealth.

      Most of the world’s largest (by population) 10 or 12 cities are in the less developed nations (China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Philippines), and I believe these are by far the must vulnerable to disruption of systems.

    3. Thomas,

      Thanks for the kind words — which should go to Chet Richards, who wrote this.

      “Short version: to use Star Trek terminology, America has lots of phasers and photon torpedos, but what we really need is a Prime Directive.”

      Most brilliant thing I’ve read in a long time. I’ll use this!

  2. ISIS just had main supply line through the border town of Tel Abyad to their capital Ar-Raqqah cut by the YPG/FSA forces. This will prove to be a test to see if ISIS is as strong or as adaptable as people say.

    Whether its because they are formidable or because most of their opponents are incompetent and weak.

    1. ” describes the significance of this in narrow terms.”
      I read the article and it only mentioned a cutting of a supply route and the exodus of refugees and nothing else.

      Could you elaborate?

    2. infowarrior,

      Our foes seldom have “supply routes” in any meaningful sense. The article refers to something quite different:

      “The capture of Tel Abyad by the Kurdish YPG and smaller Syrian rebel groups means the Syrian Kurds effectively control some 400 km (250 miles) of the Syrian-Turkish border that has been a conduit for foreign fighters joining Islamic State.”

      This is typical of western journalists writing about 4th gen wars as if it was 1944 France. I doubt the Kurds have anything like control over that large space, except those parts of it inhabited by Kurds. For comparison, the US government has spent billions attempting to “control” the flow of people and drugs over our border with Mexico, with little success. I doubt the Kurds can do so well with their limited resources.

      Also, 14 years of these wars should have taught us that these announcements must be regarded skeptically. ISIS might just as easily devise new routes.

      “The YPG-led forces also seized control of the road linking Tel Abyad to the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa city, about 50 miles (80 km) to the south, cutting off a supply route which Islamic State had used to send reinforcements.”

      This has no clear meaning. I suspect the reporter is attempting to say “reinforcements from Ragga City to Tel Abyad”. Either way, it just means the next fight will be on the road rather than at Tel Abyad. None of these groups have much ability to maintain large fronts in any real strength. It’s more like Rommel’s war in North Africa — what counts are the forces, not the spaces they move across.

      “Tel Abyad, on the border with Turkey, has been a main conduit for Islamic State to smuggle weapons and oil.”

      The Reuters author doesn’t draw strong conclusions about what comes next, saying merely that things have flowed through Tel Abyad — not that they cannot find new paths to ISIS. That is, we don’t know if ISIS has been cut off from anything.

    3. infowarrior,

      Yes, he’s really gotten excited about the Kurd – IS fight. He discusses this like it’s Patton’s 3rd Army vs. Wehrmacht in 1944. He’s saying silly things like “There hasn’t been an offensive like this from a socialist army since 1945” (forgot about the Chinese in Korea?).

      Brecher’s posts about this suggests he’s reporting from the map room of God. Silly to report any war that way, but especially these kind of wars. Look at this…

      http://pando.com/2014/10/16/the-war-nerd-nobody-could-have-predicted-islamic-states-retreat-from-kobane-except-me/

      http://pando.com/2014/10/31/the-war-nerd-crunching-numbers-on-kobane/

    4. Its not specifically the Kurds though. Its the female frontline soldiers actually. He appears to percieve them as the 2nd coming of the Amazons kicking misogynist ISIS ass(Though he did write an article about the misconception of a female warlord in Afghanistan). Seems like that has sort of scrambled his usually accurate analysis of war.

    5. infowarrior,

      I noticed that in these posts, but didn’t realize that was the driver of his love for the Kurds. He was better, imo, when writing about history and its relevance to today — and his personal experiences in the Middle East. His war reporting has that dramatic quality I associate with fictional reporting.

    6. ”I noticed that in these posts, but didn’t realize that was the driver of his love for the Kurds.”
      I don’t claim to read his mind but that’s the impression his article gave me and seems to also mesh with his partisan politics which from what I read seems to skew left considering the Syrian Kurds are avowed socialists.

  3. While ISIS may be at “war” with the United States, the United States is both opposing it and – directly and indirectly, aiding it or at least elements linked to it. NATO ally Turkey almost certainly is and “ally” Saudi Arabia or at least prominent elements therein are aiding ISIS.

    Meanwhile the US opposes such ISIS foes as Iran and Assad.

    My vocabulary is not sufficently robust to characterize this with a single word.

  4. In organized crime, the term would be protection racket. You commit violent crimes against an establishment or a town, and force them to hire you to protect them against threats.

  5. We are not at war with IS, anything but. The US moves have just been a ‘slap across the knuckles’ for them to get back on track…that is kill Syria. Yes you can have Sunni Iraq, leave the Kurds alone (big US and Israeli interests there). Kill Syria, attack Hezbollah and all is golden….

    That is the #1 priority of the ‘Coalition of the Terminaly Insane’ (CoTI for short). US, UK, Turkey, Qater, Israel, Saudi Arabia, all with their mad dreams….

    The more poltically clever Al Nasra didn’t scare the CoTI with an expansion into Iraq (which nearly broke the CoTI) hence the weapons flows (and Israeli air and artillery support) and they are being ‘rehablitated’ poltically by the CoTI and of course the neo-cons…heck even the Guardian got into the act recently with an AN puff piece article.. But, as IS gets the message’ then the air strikes stop and the support comes in. Plus the Kurds (a lot fo them women) just kicked their heads in recently.

    Yes the CoTI must be feeling good now, IS has gotten back on track again, AN has gotten some good gains, ‘our boys’ again…amazingly enough (quell surprise) lots of money, reinforcements and US arms end up with them…..all those lovely US anti-tank missles they got and Turkey letting in 10,000 reinforcements just recently.

    Except the 17,000 Iranian forces just arriving though…ooops. As Iran wakes up to the fact that there is going to be no nuclear settlement ever, it was all just a distraction to try and keep them out of the Syria game. And what will Russia do? And China? Given that Russia was prepared to showdown the USN (and the USN blinked) over this a couple of years ago, they are serious players here. Given that the US is directly threatening Russia and China right on their doorsteps…supporitng a kicking elsewhere must seem really attractive.

    Nah the US ‘deep state’ and the neo-cons love IS and AN. heck the Israelis (scenting victory) are not even hiding it any longer…and their alliance with Saudi Arabia. Israel is even making it plain over their plans for southern Lebanon…think ethnic cleansing of a couple of a millon people in the on belief that Hezbollah is too distracted in Syria…..

    The US and Israel have gone ‘all in’ on a Sunni Wahabbi takeover of the ME. Somehow I suspect it will not quite work out how they ‘wet dream’ it.

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