By Dr. Alan Gropman

To defeat ISIS, the U.S. should use a different strategy than what was used in the Gulf War I (Deserts Shield and Storm) and Gulf War II (Iraqi Freedom), where defeat of the enemy was the goal and American troops led the fighting. This is according to a recent RAND Corp. publication, Rolling Back the Islamic State, which examines four strategic options for U.S. defeat of ISIS. Authors Seth G. Jones, James Dobbins, Daniel Byman, Christopher S. Chivvis, Ben Connable, Jeffrey Martini, Eric Robinson, and Nathan Chandler understand the previous high costs — in killed and wounded and money (trillions of dollars) — to U.S. fighting in the Middle East and Central Asia. Their favored strategy, therefore, is to “rollback” ISIS — that is, Americans showing locals how to fight ISIS and U.S. forces providing supporting logistics, air, special forces, and intelligence. 

ISIS is much less a new Salafi-jihadist adversary than a slightly different foe built from previously fought terrorist and insurgent organizations. The U.S., at great cost to itself and to denizens of Iraq and Syria, has diminished (defeated would be the wrong term for such organizations as al-Qaeda) many such organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though ISIS’s territory and fighting base has been sharply reduced (at its height five years ago 100,000 square kilometers in Iraq and Syria and 11 million people under its domain), it also has spread (but without control of territory) to many other countries, including Nigeria, Libya, and Egypt. 

RAND’s report examines four strategic options: 1) disengagement, 2) containment, 3) rollback light (with a reliance on assets in Nigeria, Libya, and Egypt, and 4) rollback heavy (adding American conventional forces in ground combat).

The publication’s authors see some benefits to containment or disengagement strategies because ISIS has made so many enemies in Iraq and Syria that it might “eventually burn itself out.” The authors believe, however, containment of ISIS or disengagement from the fight would mean “the end is uncertain, and … defeat of [ISIS] would be at best distant.” If the rollback heavy strategy was chosen, “the employment of large numbers of American conventional troops [could] give rise to additional local resistance and would likely leave the U.S. principally responsible for the aftermath.”

The authors, therefore, conclude the U.S. should pursue a rollback light strategy, including use of American airpower, special operations forces, and intelligence units “to enable local partners to liberate territory … currently held by [ISIS].” 

The authors want to “intensify military efforts in Syria, delegate authority downward (have Washington step back and let the field commander fight, expand basing access in North and West Africa (to speed up response among other capabilities), tighten restrictions on [ISIS] internet access, and strengthen partner capacity to secure and govern territory.” The authors then deal with all of the states where ISIS has a presence, noting each country has its cultural, ethnic, and political differences. 

To fulfill this strategy, the authors see an annual investment of 31,050 troops (the largest numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan) and fewer people in Syria, Libya Egypt, and Nigeria and an annual cost of $40.5 million.