To Defeat ISIS, Keep it Simple

September 15, 2014

An ages-old military dictum known as the “KISS” principle warns wartime planners to “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” Complexity is all too often the enemy of success. When too many uncertainties mix together the unknowable amount of resulting risk always becomes unmanageable. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s newly announced strategy to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) severely violates this principle.

First, the strategy seems ignorant of Iraq’s troubled history — the lessons of which a generation of American service members have learned at great cost. The administration is desperately hoping to hold together a state whose borders were defined by the West less than a hundred years ago, but which has been marked by internecine strife between three distinct cultural segments — Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds — for nearly 1400 years. Indeed, this is yet another instance of the tribalistic “my family against my neighbor, my neighbor against my clan, and my clan against the neighboring clan” cultural view dominant throughout much of the Middle East. The past three decades have continued this pattern in Iraq: Sunnis brutally repressed and starved out the country’s Shi’a during a horrific decade-long war with Iran, a predominantly Shi’a country, and following the 1991 Gulf War there was a series of Shi’a and Kurdish uprisings against Saddam Hussein, the suppression of which included forcible relocation of the mainly Shi’a Marsh Arabs living in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin and the deadly gassing of thousands of Kurds. Is it any wonder then that when Shi’a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to power he demonstrably favored his own sect and that Sunnis and Kurds roundly rejected him? More to the point, is there any real chance the new Shi’a prime minister will be significantly more successful in uniting these disparate, ages-old enemies when centuries of mistrust continue to cloud public and sectarian opinion, and be able to do so amidst an ongoing civil war?

It is a fool’s errand to try to force the state of Iraq to remain intact when that outcome requires political compromises and burying of religious and ethnic hatreds that are all too evident throughout the entire region. The facts on the ground and decades of Western political and military failures support the conclusion that forcing these disparate sects together without also accepting a ruthless dictator brutal enough to force public acquiescence is simply not possible. And, obviously, this policy also means hoping against hope that the complex swirl of sectarian divides, unstable (if not untenable) power-sharing arrangements, and splitting of spoils and oil revenues can be contained while the central government fights the prolonged civil war against ISIS that has taken root within its borders. Yet the administration’s plans hinge on providing support to Iranian-backed Iraqi leaders in taking on the Sunni extremists of ISIS by arming and supporting moderate Sunnis who will be fighting to sustain their subservience to a Shi’a government. Wouldn’t it make more sense to recognize the reality of three distinct territories of what used to be Iraq and thus help Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’a fight ISIS in the name of their own respective sovereignties? Then all the parties would be defending their own self-interest, and the anti-ISIS battle can be separated from the entangled complexity of objectives that arise when defeating ISIS leads to political outcomes against the fighting forces’ own interests.

Similarly, in Syria the administration has chosen the complexity of cross-cutting entanglements by being either unwilling or unable to make the necessary, but miserably distasteful, alliances with various actors like Syria’s President Assad and his Iranian backers – despite making alliances with those same Iranian backers in Iraq. Instead, we are choosing to try and find some elusive segment of Syrian society that, though they have not yet emerged three years into a civil war, is capable of bearing arms effectively against both ISIS and the Syrian military, is less radical than ISIS, and yet still strong enough to rule post-Assad. No such force exists, and building one — if it is even possible — would take years and require arming untold hordes of fighters, any number of whom could easily switch sides and join ISIS at any moment or, perhaps more likely, retreat from the fight and leave all the U.S.-supplied weapons systems in the hands of ISIS, just as happened with the Iraqi Army earlier this year. Again, the complexity and opportunity for failure as a function of unknown and uncontrollable events is impossible to calculate.

In the end, the simplest military strategy almost always works best. Diplomacy and politics exist in a realm where there it is possible to navigate complicated and entangled subtleties, but when the bullets start flying and people start dying it is better to keep it simple: Identify the main enemy, make whatever alliances you have to in order to win, and get the job done. It was surely hard for Churchill and President Roosevelt to be aligned with Stalin to eradicate the greater evil of Hitler; and no one envies Truman’s difficult decision to drop the atomic bomb to achieve the end of World War Two. But that is what wartime strategy often entails — hard choices, anguishing alliances… and the will to win.

In his speech to the nation last week, the president clearly identified the three pillars of his real strategy for defeating ISIS: (1) ISIS must be destroyed, (2) he is unwilling to use our military on the ground to do it, and (3) he cannot or will not make hard choices like splitting up Iraq or partnering with Assad. Perhaps any two of these might be doable, but there is no way all three can hold for the period of time this effort will require. In the end, being unwilling to use our own troops means crafting a coalition of people with different interests, capabilities, and senses of morality. Accepting this truth should lead us to a simple, straightforward plan that partitions Iraq and makes a deal with Assad. Instead, the president plans to make complex alliances with multiple Sunni states to strengthen the non-ISIS Sunnis in Syria — “moderate militants” — that also want to topple Iranian-backed Assad, while in Iraq he plans to support Iranian-backed Shi’a in fielding a mixed army of Shi’a and Sunni against ISIS. This plan has become a complex morass before we even start, and reflects a gross misunderstanding of what constitutes a plausible, successful military strategy. War is hard enough without undue complications, and keeping it simple is the best way to avoid making this another case of doing stupid “stuff.”


J. Michael Barrett is a former Naval Intelligence Officer and White House Director of Strategy for the Homeland Security Council. He is currently a Principal with the DC-based consulting firm Diligent Innovations.


Photo credit: Enno Lenze