Washington is deploying more soldiers to fight Islamic State. On December 1, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced the Pentagon would send a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” of two-hundred U.S. commandos to Iraq.
According to Carter, the soldiers will “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders” and “conduct unilateral operations into Syria.”
American elite troops have long operated in Iraq and Syria and the arrival of more isn’t a surprise. But what, specifically, will these soldiers do? Can two-hundred commandos change the tide of the war? According to Malcolm Nance, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer and counter-terrorism expert, those soldiers could make all the difference.
Nance is no stranger to Islamist terror—he literally wrote the book on the subject—and has lived in and around the Middle East for the past ten years. He says he’s got a plan that would change the dynamic of the war. It starts with U.S. commandos.
“The special operations forces in Iraq need to be unleashed,” Nance tells War Is Boring. “[They] need to be cut loose.”
But Nance says the United States can’t do it alone. The American special operations forces need to partner with the Iraqi special forces, the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish fighters. That’s happening to some extent, Nance says, but it needs to happen more for his plan to work.
“What we need to do is marry up equal numbers of forces—if not on a three to one basis, so three Iraqis for every U.S special operations trooper—then start carrying out unconventional missions in ISIS’s rear.”
The root of the problem is that the U.S.-led coalition is relying mainly on Iraqi ground troops who lack tactical creativity. “Iraqi forces . . . are linearly disposed against ISIS in the cities. All they do is hammer each other back and forth. ISIS learned how to be asymmetrical. They’ve learned how to go around and flow like water, but they don’t like having it done to them.”
Under Nance’s plan, combinations of American, Iraqi and Syrian commandos begin conducting masked raids at night. “Don’t fight the enemy that’s sitting right in front of your face,” he explains. “Go twenty-thirty miles behind his lines and destroy his entire line of logistics at night.”
“Stop every truck, destroy outposts, knock down communications,” he explains. “Get ISIS to believe that when the night falls, they don’t own their borders anymore. They only own the cities.”
Nance says cutting off Islamic State’s logistical infrastructure will force it to conduct more nighttime patrols. When that happens, “air power can finally start dominating . . . you have to break ISIS out of its state-like shell and force them into a mobile battle. The best way to do that is through these raids.”
Then the joint special operations task force should dig in. “Take one-hundred-and-fifty special forces . . . and fly them out to the middle of the eastern Syrian desert. Create a combat operations outpost for a day or two and at night you go out and destroy everything.” “You find outposts? You hit ‘em. You start leap frogging all across the Islamic State.”
Nance stresses over and over how important it is to include Iraqi and Syrian forces in these raids.
“I would create a pan-Arab joint special operations task group of two-thousand men,” he explains. “I would give them some high capacity Ford F-350s with heavy machine guns . . . and we would start marauding over eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.”
He repeated one word. “Marauding.”
Nance says his plan will turn around morale in the local fighters and make them feel like they’re on the offensive. “If I had my way, I’d have three checkpoints outside of Raqqa every night,” Nance added. “Everything that comes up to it gets killed. Suddenly ISIS would have to devote an enormous amount of resources for its rear area security.”
Islamic State is a master of momentum and psychological warfare. Despite heavy human losses — and some territorial setbacks — in recent months, many feel as if the militants are still on the offensive. Nance’s plan would take that away and put the extremists on the defensive, which Islamic State actually isn’t very good at.
“All they do is lay IEDs. That’s all,” he explains. “The Iraqis fight in the same linear fashion, butting heads like two bulls. No one is flanking.”
Nance puts it down to a lack of imagination. Both sides have been fighting this way for so long that no one will change. But Nance’s plan would put Islamic State under siege in “thirty different places at thirty different times. We would be treating them the way they treated the Iraqis.”
“In seventy-two hours the entire narrative of ISIS as an Islamic caliphate would be crushed,” he says. “What they would be is a series of cities that are hold-up, and they can’t go on the highway because real ground forces are destroying, sniping, land mining everything.”
The intelligence vet admits that his plan is unconventional, but that’s the point. He also notes that the war has two fronts—one on the battlefield and one in the minds of the people fighting. He wants the Pentagon to think about both.
The war against Islamic State is as much an ideological conflict as it is a ground war. The United States can kill Islamic State fighters all day long, but unless it destroys Islamic State’s apocalyptic ideology it won’t achieve victory.
This is an article by Mathew Gault on the National Interest