Ending ISIS (Part 3): An Ex-CIA Chief's Plan - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Ending ISIS (Part 3): An Ex-CIA Chief's Plan

Ending ISIS (Part 3): An Ex-CIA Chief's Plan

By John McLaughlin


Because we may not have any other choice. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

How can we stop the Islamic State? In this three-part series, taken from excerpts of his testimony before the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee last month, former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin offers a plan of attack. In Part I, McLaughlin examined the scourge of the Islamic State, and in Part II, he analyzed the tricky politics at stake. Today, he lays out a military strategy. 

Author’s note: When I laid out this part for Committee members last month, I stressed that I did so with considerable humility and without the essential planning resources of the Pentagon. In other words, that I was not trying to be the proverbial “armchair General” and recognized that no one has exclusive wisdom on this problem. These are ideas for debate. As it turns out, just last week, Defense Secretary Carter told this same Congressional Committee that the US will indeed augment the 3500 US troops in theater with a new Special Operations Expeditionary Force authorized to conduct targeted operations against Islamic State targets – a move consistent with at least part of what you’ll read below. 

In truth, the ground component of an anti-IS strategy will be the most difficult and controversial. But assuming the day of defeat comes for the Islamic State, some stabilizing force will have to be on the ground to manage transition back to normalcy. It has ever been thus in warfare. It is not too soon to plan for who will play that role – the UN, the US, NATO, Iraqi forces, some multinational coalition? Answering this is the response required to the question General Petraeus famously asked once in Iraq: How does this end?


It is often said that there is no military solution to a problem. But as important as is the political dimension, it is impossible to imagine a solution to the ISIL problem without a military component. A military component has been endlessly debated, and there are few new ideas. It is now mostly a task of figuring out how to implement them — with what means, in what measure and in what sequence. The following steps are worthy of consideration:

1. Establish clear priorities.

Throughout the history of this problem, we have tried to do many things at once — for example, degrading ISIL while also weakening the Assad regime. The catch-22 is that weakening one strengthens the other. It is time to say destroying ISIL comes first and that we will do whatever is necessary to achieve that. This may require moving the Assad issue even farther, to the back burner. We’ve already signaled he does not have to go anytime soon.

It may also require working more directly with the Russians — if they can be persuaded — who have perhaps even more reasons than the U.S. for concern about ISIL. Russian intelligence has said publicly that there are over 2,000 Russian citizens in ISIL’s ranks, and Putin has to worry about them returning, particularly to the restive Caucasus region. Moreover, Putin has to take into account that ISIL or an affiliate probably brought down the airliner that blew up over Egypt on October 31.

2. Better arms for anti-ISIS fighters.

We can more robustly arm those forces, such as the Kurds in Syria and in Iraq, that have demonstrated the will and capability to defeat ISIL. The Iraqi Kurds recently did so in the town of Sinjar, severing the logistically important link between the key ISIL strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

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A Shia Muslim protesting ISIS and the use of terrorism in the name of Islam in front of the White House.

Source Malden Antonov / Getty

3. Intensify the U.S. response.

We should intensify the air campaign and increase the number of U.S. special operators in the theater well beyond the 50 already designated by the president. They should be empowered to go forward with trusted forces for the purpose of advising and helping to designate targets for the air campaign.

4. Establish safe enclaves.

We should establish safe enclaves within Syria for fighters and refugees, as General Petraeus has suggested, defended by U.S. and coalition aircraft, possibly manned partly by U.S. advisers and accompanied by a warning to Assad that violating the space would risk us destroying his air force.

5. Lead in the formation of a substantial multinational force.

This is perhaps the most important — and most challenging — step. The force should be capable of destroying ISIL up close. I do not underestimate the leadership challenge here, nor the difficulties of command and control in such a coalition; there will be numerous obstacles and in many quarters little enthusiasm, but it is hard to see a way to deny ISIL its safe haven, from which it can plan operations like the Paris attacks, without this component.

This need not be an exclusively American force. Options could include a coalition of U.S., Kurdish and Arab forces and/or a NATO operation under Article 5, the collective defense provision of the treaty. As suggested by retired SACEUR Adm. Jim Stavridis, NATO could have a major planning and operational role, spanning everything from training to augmenting air assets, contributing special operations forces and constructing an “open coalition” that could include Russia and some Arab partners. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has emphasized “out-of-area” missions. This certainly seems to qualify.

Regarding the political component of a strategy, the U.S. has the foundation in the diplomatic talks underway in Vienna among 19 countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The early communiqués signal broad, but probably fragile, agreement on a few ambitious aims, such as a six-month target for establishing a “nonsectarian transitional” government and beginning work on a new constitution as the basis for elections in 18 months. It’s a beginning.

At the same time, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of continued vigorous U.S. engagement with the Iraqi government to urge progress toward a government that is more inclusive of Sunnis and all Iraqi elements. Otherwise, Iraq can neither survive as a unitary state nor field an effective counter-ISIL fighting force.

In sum, the bottom line is that eliminating the evil that is ISIL requires two major things: political changes in Iraq and Syria that respond to the grievances of their alienated and abused Sunni populations and a military strategy that rolls back ISIL gains and denies them their claimed “caliphate.” Achieving these goals will require gargantuan effort. But the truth is, nothing else will work. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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