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We’re Back in the Iraq Business, Part IV

Too many variables and topics to take them all on in this note. But I do want to address several, and introduce a couple of ideas I gleaned from others.


  • We, the US or any sort of “global coalition”, are not going to solve the problems…the sources of instability and threats…. in the Middle East and South Asia.
  • We’re not going to eliminate ISIS, any more than we will ever eliminate al Qaeda or any of the other terrorist organizations. Their basis is unhappiness expressed as religious extremism, and the world will never be an entirely happy place. ISIS, Al Qaeda and the others are complex adaptive systems.
  • ISIS certainly seems to display most of the attributes of complex adaptive system. It does not have unifying central control and is a mix of small groups and sub-groups of actors unified by a common purpose. These groups act independently, and in a highly unpredictable, self-organizing way.  Its lack of formal organization has not hampered its effectiveness and ability to defeat better-organized forces with superior equipment and training.  Even though they come from all over the globe to fight, the strength of their common will creates a bond that holds them together against a common enemy (even though they fight each other at times).

Aaron Bazin, “Defeating ISIS and Their Complex Way of War”, Small Wars Journal, September 15, 2014.

  • Better to engage them there than here.
  • The bad guys turn their anger toward the US and others who interfere and/or are of different beliefs because we are in their countries and because we are trying to impose our will and idea of how things should be. That’s a large part of the reason other countries we want in the fight with us are hesitant to get more involved…….they don’t want the escalations towards them that come with escalations by them (see Turkey), and they know the US will act.
  • I believe there will be at best tiny ground force provided from other countries.
  • There will not be an Iraqi military or security force. There will be a Sunni military and security forces for the Sunni regions of the country, and a Shiite military and security forces for the Shiite portions of the country. And then there is the Kurdish region.

Here’s a different view that may be helpful to the US’s thinking about what we really ought to want to accomplish and how we want to get to that outcome.

    • The conflicts are primarily Sunnis vs. Shia, populations against government, regions of an artificially-composed country against one another, etc., not population against government.
    • If I told you that the Middle East and South Asia will remain unstable and dangerous places where there always has been and likely always will be unrest and unpredictability, but there are potentially ways to use that instability to have the fighting and threats more focused on “between them” and thereby reduce the danger of attacks here in the US, would you be OK with that?
    • Additionally, the determination will have to be made early on if an ISIS first strategy means the primary objective is the actual elimination of that terrorist and insurgent organization or if it means that the severe degradation (attrition of personnel and materiel) of that organization is the primary objective. The reason for a potential second strategy variant is that a severely weakened ISIS: (a) might have some benefit as a counter-balance to other influences and forces in Syria and Iraq and (b) might have some benefit in order to continue to create a Sunni Islamist schism as an Al Qaeda competitor.”
    • Robert Bunker, “An Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) First Strategy”, Small Wars Journal, August 30, 2014
    • “Complex adaptive systems are self-organizing. As the system organizes, a hierarchy is established and leaders come to the forefront.  It seems counter-intuitive, but letting this happen helps stabilize the system. Much like in criminal organizations, overtime, three tiers of ISIS will eventually emerge: leaders, connectors, and workers. Capturing or killing the leadership throws the system back into disorganization, which actually causes the system to emerge stronger.  Eliminating all of the workers is also difficult as it takes a largest amount of resources and time.
    • The key here is to allow the system to stabilize and then eliminate the mid-tier connectors in a near simultaneous fashion.  Law enforcement commonly does this in racketeering and drug cases with a near simultaneous ‘round-up’ of all members of a criminal organization.  This weakens the system, and prevents it from operating effectively. Leaders find themselves unable to lead anything and workers find themselves without resources or guidance.  Unable to find a position of power, the international community would find ISIS leadership more amenable to accept their will and comply with international norms.  Once weakened, the international community must help provide a viable governance alternative and help build its legitimacy. The international community must have the follow-through to address the critical question of what’s next.”

            Aaron Bazin, “Defeating ISIS and Their Complex Way of War”, Small Wars Journal, September 15, 2014.

  • Get arms and ammunition out of the region. Do not send more in. There is a lifetime supply of both already there.
  • Covertly confuse, confound, disrupt and degrade those entities that appear to represent a threat to do harm here to the US.
  • If ISIS fights as a complex adaptive system, then the international community could apply knowledge of complex adaptive systems theory to defeat them.   Twice in its history, the United States has employed an “Anaconda” Strategy.  General Winfield Scott developed an “Anaconda” strategy to isolate and strangle the Confederate States (photo above).  More recently, General David Petraeus employed an “Anaconda Strategy versus Al-Qaeda Iraq” to isolate the adversary both physically and conceptually.  The international community should consider application of the “anaconda” metaphor to this new context.  One such approach could approach on three fronts: (1) establish boundaries to isolate and contain; (2) intervene on multiple fronts early and often; and, (3) conduct near simultaneous elimination of the connectors.

Aaron Bazin, “Defeating ISIS and Their Complex Way of War”, Small Wars Journal, September 15, 2014.

  • Look for ways to “level the playing field” between factions if we cannot effectively eliminate those we oppose and should not set our sights on solving the problems.
  • There’s a very important law enforcement and community services center aspect to the formula. Maybe the fact that we are sending active military into the Ebola region to help with containment will only draw bad guys….I would prefer to see this be a medical corps and civil services combination. But I do believe there is a peacekeeping role played by plopping down these operations and services centers in the midst of the poorest and most unstable areas
  • We’ve got to get much better at information operations. The bad guys are winning the messaging war, and that is helping with their recruitment. You don’t win the war with I/O, but you do confuse, confound, peel off the weak followers, turn some key sources of insight and intelligence, divide them, pit them against one another, etc.

Smart power, soft power…they have important roles in increasing the stability in and reducing the threats from these areas and regions.

Three other data points to keep in the back of your mind:

  • The first time a US or ally’s fighter jet gets shot down, or a special forced adviser wounded or killed, or a group of Syrian freedom fighters takes on the Syrian military, or those Turkish hostages start getting executed, all of the calculus goes out the window.
  • Al Qaeda is jealous. See their effort to hijack Pakistani naval ship.
  • Karzai is still in office in Afghanistan.

I may be wrong about some or all of this, and many of you have different and more informed views. Share them, and I’ll share them with our readers.  Send me a note at



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