On Isis. The Reality of the 21st Century Battlefield

Scientific Essay, 2015

45 Pages



This paper discusses in varying detail the realities of the twenty-first-century battlefield environment. Unless practiced by large nation-states against each other, conventional warfare is a dying platform by which asymmetric warfare and terrorism have replaced the conventional warfare dynamic. Asymmetric warfare is defined as the blurring of the lines between politics, economics, combatants, civilians, and their context in the prosecution of war on an ever changing battlefield. Inclusive in this dynamic is cyber, communications, terrorism, the use of civilians as human shields and as both offensive and defensive weapons.

Fourth generation warfare, as asymmetrical warfare has come to be known, is not new. It has existed in every war since the dawn of man. What is different is the total application of asymmetric components on a battlefield as a means to fight. The population-centric model, as espoused by the United States Army and Marine Corps, has now made it into the lexicon of air operations in Iraq, a segment of war prosecution it was never designed for. As a result, the Air Force has been subjected to mission paralysis and ultimately, mission failure.

David Galula gave future military commanders guidance, not hard and fast rules. Rules of engagement have come to favor the enemy, and if the reality of war does not return to those in command, the United States may never win another war.


History teaches, but the world ignores. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s built their Third Reich in violation of the Versailles treaty. The world did nothing and paid for it with World War II. The Islamic State is on the ascension and the world ignores. Various reasons are given, as were given in the 1930s. World leaders have said, “It is someone else’s problem,” or, “the American people are war fatigued,” matching just two of the reasons given that allowed Hitler to build.

If it were possible to conduct diplomacy with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), would the United States, the United Nations, and the Syrian and Iraqi people do so if it meant the possibility of a true, verifiable, and trusted peace? Or, are the transgressions and insults committed against both the Syrian and Iraqi people too extreme to consider the possibility of peace? Career diplomats would consider such a proposal for that paradigm, the construction and implementation of achieving peace, their life’s work.

Understanding the enemy is the first and foremost endeavor that must be undertaken to address them on the battlefield. In Afghanistan, a country where the United States military has spent fourteen years, understanding the population, the different tribes, and the political reality in establishing a Western democracy proved a difficult and elusive task.

With the Islamic State there is no diplomacy; there are no economic or social reforms to address the root causes that invite Sunni Muslims to join and assist the Islamic State in their ascension. Appointed and career officials with the United States government and the military have stated that “disenfranchised” youth are drawn to ISIS because of the failed social and economic structures from which the youth emanate. This belief is a community organizing talking point that is both naïve and without foundation.

Those who wield power to subjugate, to commit atrocities in the name of their god, deny human rights, murder POWs, homosexuals, non-believers, and “infidels,” threaten and extort the innocent; understand but one dynamic, sheer unadulterated power.

War has always been considered a last resort and the result of failed diplomacy when men could not or would not come to an acceptable diplomatic conclusion. This is the centuries-old Westphalian ideal. ISIS has one goal, to rule the world under the auspices of a Caliphate and anyone or nation which stands in their way will be eradicated. Diplomacy, assessing why Islamic State fighters are “disenfranchised,” providing jobs and education to thwart those who desire to join the Islamic State because they do not fit into society are not options to end the strife.

The existence of ISIS provides a sectarian group a “home” in which Sunnis can relish newly-found power, wealth, a sense of belonging, and, the ability to change the world according to their religious beliefs. The issues that lie within the Sunni-Shia dynamic date back 1400 years, and the modern conflict between the sects is not based in religion, but in obtaining and controlling power. It is also a modern day blood feud, which makes the conflict all the more dangerous. For 1400 years, the overall relationship narrative had been found in pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation and was not a conflict of continued animosity.

Iraq, the modern nation-state, was established by Western powers after the First World War where Sunnis, Shia, Kurd, Jew, Christian, and other religious groups have coexisted and intertwined for centuries before Western influence. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shia, the most prominent sect, sought to control the country under the auspices of Nouri al-Maliki, who removed Sunnis from leadership positions in the government and the armed services. Although, ISIS would have become an issue whether or not Sunni or Shia maintained the controlling power in Iraq; the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is at its core, a radical terrorist organization.

History has demonstrated that demented men care little in the processes of peace and diplomacy. They seek to overpower and reign despite potential diplomatic avenues that may be open to them. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin, and Alexander the Great are examples of men who either attempted to conquer their known world or achieve absolute power. Hitler sought to punish and vanquish European countries for the subjugation of Germany and the economic hardships endured by its people after World War I. It was no coincidence that in 1940, France was forced to sign the terms of surrender in the same train car in which Germany surrendered at the conclusion of World War I.

ISIS leadership follows in the vein of Hitler, seeking to subjugate land and peoples, bring disenfranchised Sunnis into the fold, establish a sovereign state, and wield absolute power from their established Caliphate. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, referred to in this paper as the Islamic State (IS), has changed the Westphalian theory of statecraft and war as a diplomatic tool. The Westphalian model came from a revolution that established the modern state and provided a definition of state sovereignty as the “supreme authority within a territory.”

The Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 ending the Thirty Years War. The major powers of Spain, France, Sweden, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire set forth agreements to respect territorial sovereignty. The Westphalian Treaty influenced the concept of sovereign statehood across Europe and was the basis for future international law.

Modern day national sovereignty has become a blurred ideation across the Middle East. While there is a belief that the Westphalian model is a myth, contrived through history, there is little doubt that the nation-state structure emanated from the Westphalian treaty.

The United States Military

The United States military is grounded in the theories of Antoine-Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz. Both theorists are more alike in their ideology of war than they are separated by those who identify themselves as “Jominian” or “Clausewitzian.” The differences between the two men lie in how each viewed historical concepts of politics and war. Jomini’s approach is in the simple terms of science and technology versus Clausewitz’s philosophical “spirit of the age” and the dialectical interaction of diverse factors-erroneous information, excitement, fear, and the changing face of battle in the fog of war. The US military utilizes both philosophies in training, logistics, developing new weapons systems, equipping its force, and developing doctrine.

In addition, and in a nod to Clausewitz, the US Army practices Auftragstaktik

(mission-type tactics), which promotes “individual initiative, independent decision making, and thinking leaders reaching tactical decisions on their own accord.” Simply, junior officers and non-commissioned officers are expected to lead and change the tactics and methods of battle in response to changing battlefield conditions in order to achieve the mission objective.

The concept of nation-state armies is predicated on the Westphalian idea of state sovereignty, ownership, and control. As such, military force has been used to impress the will of the state over another state. IS represents the obverse of the United States military, but because of their fanatical religious belief, a fanaticism demonstrated in their attacks and subsequent dealings with innocents and prisoners of war, IS has demonstrated that it is capable and dangerous on the battlefield. The IS hallmark, installed on the battlefield, is to sow terror so that opposing forces feel fear and doubt their ability.

In 2001, United States Army doctrine revolved around state on state conflict and was set concretely in a conventional war dynamic. Conventional war tactics marked the initial US effort in Afghanistan, but in short order asymmetric war components became the pre-eminent warfighting application. In 2003 Iraq, the Iraqi Army and the vaunted Republican Guard proved to be a hollow fighting force (A reality repeated with the Iraqi army when IS invaded Iraq in 2014). Instead, the Fedayeen Saddam, a 30,000 man “ghost force,” proved to be a far superior foe than the Iraqi army.

US Military and Counterinsurgency Doctrine.

Because of the changing war dynamic in both Afghanistan and Iraq, General David Petraeus saw the need to codify US Army doctrine concerning insurgency and guerilla fighting. In 2006, with the assistance of several academic contributors, Petraeus published US Army Field Manual FM3-24 Counterinsurgency. In the post-Vietnam world, the study of insurgencies and guerilla tactics became off-limits for the army. The staff at the Army’s Special Operations School went so far as to throw out any and all manuals and information on counterinsurgent tactics gleaned from Vietnam. According to Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of FM3-24s authors, “After Vietnam we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision.” FM3-24 was grounded in history and took facts and experiences from the Maoist revolution in China, the experiences of David Galula in Algeria pertaining to his successful implementation of counterinsurgent tactics in his area of operation, and the British effort in 1949 Malaya. Based on these experiences, Petraeus and his cohort developed a population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine.

Nagl noted in the forward to Army Field Manual FM3-24 Counterinsurgency, that the “American Army of 2003 was organized, designed, trained, and equipped to defeat another conventional army; indeed, it had no peer in that arena.” Petraeus and Nagl proceeded to change that quotient in producing an entirely new manual to address insurgencies and “small wars.” However, critics called the manual far too academic (what did they expect from academics?), assigned the term “lovey-dovey” to it, and bemoaned the fact that it gave elevated status to civilian efforts and placed too little emphasis on military force.

The fact is, any counterinsurgent effort is a standalone endeavor. While the military may endorse a general doctrinal theory, every insurgency is as different as the country in which it takes place, and the people involved. The application of specific doctrinal authorities should be considered on a case by case basis. The Islamic State does not represent a population-centric formula because many Sunnis do not support IS. However, it was left to the Shia-led government in Iraq to include the Sunni population and negate any influence IS exerted; this did not happen.

The US would not have to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. The Islamic State practices an Islamic belief system that is foreign to most Sunnis, and it has been noted that virtually all Muslims reject the Islamic State’s view of Islam. The Islamic State’s foundation comes from a political belief and not a subversive religious belief.

FM3-24 warned that Counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts were a slow, labor-intensive endeavor, and very expensive in lives and in the cost of fighting, which did not necessarily associate “slow, labor-intensive, and expensive” with combat. The laborious and expensive COIN components included civil action, or, winning the hearts and minds, rebuilding infrastructure, and internal protection and security, which included the equipping and training of a new army or security force, and nation-building.

Effective counterinsurgency operations are shaped by timely, relevant, tailored, predictive, accurate, and reliable intelligence, gathered and analyzed at the lowest possible level and disseminated throughout the force. However, this is a paradigm that is never met in full and is more often than not a hindrance to effective operations because time is usually critical. Restrictive rules of engagement have nullified effective military operations and have hindered US action against IS in Iraq.

In contrast to the early insurgent tactics, IS eschewed social and political mobilization dynamics espoused by FM3-24 in both Syria and Iraq, and has solely focused on the military paradigm while garnering support, both forced and voluntary, from the Sunni population.

FM3-24 arrived too late to be an effective tool in Iraq and saw limited applicational success in Afghanistan, and as such, with the realities and experiences taken from that COIN effort, FM 3-24 was re-evaluated, rewritten, and released as FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 C1 on June 2, 2014. The revision utilized case studies from counterinsurgencies in Sri Lanka, the Philippine “Huk” rebellion, Vietnam, and El Salvador. A counterinsurgent campaign missing from the narrative was the American effort and success during the Philippine insurrection from 1899-1913. After ten years of stagnation and morass in fighting the insurgency, newly appointed military governor General John J. Pershing successfully defeated the Filipino “Irreconcilables” by utilizing both military force and civilian cooperation programs.

Present day counterinsurgency experts base their analysis, planning, and execution of counterinsurgent tactics on winning the “hearts and minds” of the indigenous. FM3-24 was also based on, and relied heavily on, a population-centric approach. This was in direct relation to Mao’s people-centric philosophy of garnering support from rural farmers. David Galula studied Mao and posited his “four laws” on counterinsurgency as an answer to the military, political, and social parameters he believed dominated insurgent warfare.


Excerpt out of 45 pages


On Isis. The Reality of the 21st Century Battlefield
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asymmetrical warfare, isis, David Galula, US military, conventional warfare, fourth generation warfare
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Michael Petranick (Author), 2015, On Isis. The Reality of the 21st Century Battlefield, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/311551


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