Tonight, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, President Obama is going to go on national TV, and tell the world that the United States does have a strategy to counter the Islamic State. As discussed in a VICE News article earlier this week, there aren't necessarily a lot of good strategic options for fighting the Islamic State. And if a good strategy isn't possible, then the US must choose one among many strategies that aren't particularly good. The list of less-than-good strategies, however, gives the US a lot of flexibility: there are bad strategies, terrible strategies, and downright awful strategies.
Fortunately for the US, however, the strategic options for the Islamic State aren't all that hot either. Now that they've captured Mosul, the world's attention, and the occasional incoming airstrike, they are rapidly coming to a very critical strategic question: When they say "Islamic State," what exactly do they mean by "state"?
If you strip away a lot of the dross, gibberish, and mumble-mouth mush about ISIS echoing around the political-media complex, there's more or less one really big fundamental dilemma facing the US. Do you attack the Islamic State like it's a country or an insurgency?
Many folks presume that ISIS must be defeated as a counter-insurgency. This fuels a lot of the assumptions behind Secretary of State John Kerry's call for a global coalition that's just full to the brim with "political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement, and intelligence tools to support military force."
This statement is (mostly) true, insofar as it really is about a counter-insurgency. So when any politico or pundit seems compelled to punctuate every discussion of ISIS with the assertion that there are "no military solutions" to defeating ISIS, what they're really saying is that this has to be treated as a counterinsurgency issue.
However, that may not, in fact, be the only way to unpack this problem. Maybe you don't need to treat the Islamic State as a counterinsurgency problem. The Islamic State is apparently bent on moving out of the insurgency business, and right up into actually setting up a country. Part and parcel of that transition (aside from weaponizing internet cat photos) is the transition from guerrilla tactics to straight-up conventional maneuver warfare, with actual units and command-and-control and all that jazz.
And if there's anything that a top-notch, professional, conventional military is built for and knows how to do, it's fighting conventional maneuver warfare. Tanks? Armored Personnel Carriers? Artillery? Aircraft? Modern, top-tier military forces are very, very good at blowing those up.
In fact, well-trained and equipped regular militaries maintain such an enormously lopsided advantage in this arena that it's the entire reason that asymmetric warfare tactics exist. A poorly equipped and organized local force will die a sudden and messy death if they play head-to-head in the chosen game of a standing army: traditional, combined-arms, maneuver warfare.
There are any one of a number of military forces —the US, Russia, China, UK, France — that could pound ISIS flat with a quickness, through attrition if nothing else, in a toe-to-toe slugging match. Heck, the US would probably even have a decent shot at bombing ISIS forces, trying to fight a conventional war, right out of existence before they even got around to fighting at all.
Beyond just blowing up the army of a would-be Islamic State, modern military forces have an almost unfathomably effective toolkit for dismantling a government. Anyone who thinks that the West couldn't smash an actual Islamic State government into tiny little splinters wasn't paying attention to the Iraqi government circa 2003. Of course there's a flip-side to that: establishing something else in its place (but first things first, people).
It's kind of like one of the regular premises of the Star Wars franchise. A smaller ship can take on a gigantic Death Star, but only as long as it doesn't try to fight the Death Star on its own terms. In a head-on slugging match, the Death Star will evaporate the poor fool who didn't get the memo entitled: "Do Not Attack the Death Star Head-On."
So the White House seems to be convinced that anything that's going to happen in the Middle East has "no military solution" and therefore defeating the Islamic State is a counterinsurgency issue. Thus the idea of tackling the Islamic State as a battle between nations is pretty much off the table for right now.
Nonetheless, the Islamic State seems pretty determined to turn into a real country of its own, and if they're successful at doing that, they might be walking themselves into a trap. That said, if they do fall into that trap, and are taken out in a blinding flash of extreme prejudice, it might not be sufficient for ISIS folks to evaporate altogether. Still, knocking them out as a conventional army does force them back into using guerrilla tactics as an insurgent force.
So there's a definite possibility that it could just result in a stalemate: ISIS would be able to harass, but every time they got up to trying to be a serious, grown-up army, they'd get shattered back into little guerrilla-warfare sized bands.
Even if a head-to-head confrontation ended up blowing ISIS out of existence altogether, it's important to keep in mind that most of the folks in Iraq and Syria, even those who are more-or-less supporting ISIS, are the Sunni tribes who actually live there. Thus, even a successful conventional campaign aimed at eliminating ISIS would require the West is to "win" that particular engagement in such a way that it doesn't give rise to a subsequent insurgency, further down the road.
In the end, while there may be no good strategy for defeating the Islamic State, they may yet prove willing to help their opponents overcome that particular problem.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan