THE BLOG
05/31/2016 04:27 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Defeating the Islamic State: Advice from Sun Tsu

Anti-Islamic State coalition military operations are underway, with the ultimate goal of destroying the Islamic State in Syria/Iraq. This involves liberating the cities of Mosul, Raqqa, and Fallujah, as well as all ISIS-entrenched positions on the Euphrates River, beginning west of Baghdad and heading north all the way to Raqqa and beyond, to Syria's border with Turkey. Since the Islamic State is fanatically committed to a single jihadist principle -- either victory or death ("martyrdom"), and a scorched-earth policy in retreat, any strategy to defeat and dismantle their so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq requires thinking outside usual frameworks.

American leaders sometimes say, in effect, 'we don't understand ISIS at all, it's a totally new phenomenon.' To the extent that this is true, it is at best a half-truth. ISIS is a combination of elements and it can only be this combination of elements that's hard to figure out. In its individual parts, ISIS is quite clear. It's a projection of the worst, extreme and brutal interpretations of Islam: a Salafist/jihadist/terrorist ideology that produced a fearsome Islamist conventional army that has killed more of its own--Sunni Muslims--than Shi'a Muslims, Yazidis, Christians or anyone else. Its barbaric fighting methods, the decapitations, enslavement and torture, are part of a strategy, they are not barbarism for its own sake. Organizationally, there are two parts: the Islamic State so-called caliphate in Syria/Iraq, plus an always-changing transnational network of terrorists and local military forces in other countries such as Libya and the Sinai.

Whereas the caliphate, the Islamic State properly speaking, was once the driving force and the source of expansion, today the balance has shifted between it and the transnational terrorist networks. The Islamic State in Syria/Iraq is going down while its terrorist attacks and bombings are increasing because an organization emphasizes what it does best. In this sense, the upsurge in terrorism, including the bombings in Baghdad itself, represent core weakness rather than expanded strength.

The anti-ISIS coalition's strategic priority is total dismantling of the caliphate, because re-establishing a global Muslim caliphate was the rationale for creating ISIS in the first place. From the beginning, the jihadist organization's goal has been to restore Islam's power and religious prestige in world affairs by creating a new global theocratic institution. That credibility and prestige is what has attracted tens of thousands of fighters from more than 100 countries. The initial fanaticism has faded, but thousands planted in Syria and Iraq remain committed. The caliphate could, in fact, be destroyed militarily in a few weeks if major coalition powers were not so committed to limiting civilian casualties and the devastation of cities and infrastructure. As things are, it's unlikely to last another year or two, the hardest struggles being liberating the major cities that require siege and surgical attack. The transnational network of terrorist operations, however, will survive the demise of the caliphate, and ISIS terrorist networks, bereft of the caliphate, will intermingle with other jihadists such as Al Qaeda. Diligent international counter-terrorism will be necessary so long as the networks replenish themselves in various countries and regions, until the impulse to violent jihad finally burns itself out, however long it takes.

The Art of War against ISIS

Ancient Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu's slim treatise, "The Art of War," has been read in military colleges for over two millennia. Immensely influential, its laconic considerations on how to prevail in war provide modern strategists with unexpected points of view.

The key to victory, writes Sun Tzu, is that "[y]ou should take away the energy of their armies, and take away the heart of their generals ... When you do battle, it is necessary to kill people, so it is best to win without fighting.

"The best policy is to use strategy, influence, and the trend of events to cause the adversary to submit willingly...Therefore those who win every battle are not really skillful -- those who render others' armies helpless without fighting are the best of all..." The translator, Thomas Cleary, says "the paradox of 'The Art of War' is its opposition to war. And as 'The Art of War' wars against war, it does so by its own principles; it infiltrates the enemy's lines, uncovers the enemy's secrets, and changes the hearts of the enemy's troops."

Sun Tzu is of course speaking philosophically, and not as an actual policymaker. It's not a matter of giving battle plans and a scorecard to decide what victory "really" consists of. Sun Tzu's main point is that war is first of all a matter of strategy, meaning intelligent conception, preparation, and execution -- plus luck. The important thing is to be able to think anew in every situation, not to automatically use a previously successful strategy, i.e., to fight the last war. Reconfiguring a country's military with new strategy and weaponry adapted to new situations is the essence.

Is winning without fighting ever possible? There are many examples. Arraying for battle and intimidating an enemy into surrendering was a classic case: Alexander the Great and innumerable conquerors after him massed before a city and demanded surrender, promising annihilation to the recalcitrant. Forcing appeasement -- Hitler's success at Munich with Britain and France -- is a modern example. If the best victory is to win without fighting through massing force, exploitation of psychological factors, and maneuver, second-best is surely to limit the damage as much as possible. On the weaker side, surrender or appeasement is thus sometimes a rational policy, rather than cowardice, when opposition is hopeless. In the modern world of human rights aspirations, making war with some emphasis on moral calculation adds that if war does become necessary, as a last resort, a so-called just war is best, with its concern for morally adequate goals and methods of fighting, as opposed to an objectively amoral "realist" war for national interest.

What is the situation in the war on ISIS? Coalition government and military officials are rightly prudent in what they say. When things are going badly it's useful to talk about 'tactical retreat.' When things are going well it's useful to play down how well things are going. The war against the Islamic State turned in favor of coalition forces late last year. Right now it's probably going better than the public is being told. An outsider such as this writer can be provocative: In spite of several spectacular terrorist bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Islamic State's situation in the Middle East looks grim. Possibly fewer than 20,000 or even 15,000 fighters with a decimated leadership structure are hunkered down in defensive occupation positions over a large territory, essentially waiting to be attacked and killed.

Only specialists now remember the frighteningly plausible map issued two years ago revealing ISIS's ambition to conquer most of the Middle East, Eurasia, and North Africa, or its plan to incite internecine Sunni-Shi'a war throughout the Muslim world, ultimately overthrowing the House of Saud to take over Mecca and Medina. The likelihood of such events unfolding has abated to zero, and even the mediatized individual and mass beheadings no longer keep international opinion awake at night.

What advice would Sun Tzu give concerning a plan for anti-Islamic State coalition military operations? A few more aphorisms from "The Art of War": Instill confusion and conflict in the enemy, "throw them into disarray ... Wait for them to become decadent and lazy ... Cause division among them," and disorganize their internal unity by working to intensify conflicts among their leaders, their fighters, and between them.

Disorient leadership and chain of command and communication (already being done successfully). Sun Tzu also advises disrupting their "system of rewards and punishments." Act surreptitiously to encourage killing among them. If punishments are immoderate, "there will be slaughter that does not result in awe." Crucially, encourage conflict between those who, abandoning the ideology of martyrdom, at this point want to live, and those who will insist on being killed.

Use both old tactics and new: Drop leaflets and use social media to demoralize fighters and give heart to the local population. Hack and troll their social media operations (much more important than de-radicalization propaganda). Emphasize incessantly that Islamic State's cause is lost and that ISIS has become a historic disgrace of Islam rather than its resurrection. Detail how many top leaders have been killed and give names. (Local fighters may be uninformed.) Emphasize the decline in number of new recruits. Emphasize, despite and because of the successful terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the dismemberment of ISIS's networks in Europe. Show that the strategic retreat to Libya is not succeeding. Emphasize deadly drone strikes by the United States, with dozens killed at a time.

The strategic goal is to eliminate the choice the leaders set at the beginning: only victory or a martyr's death. Denying Islamic State this "success" -- i.e. they win even if they lose -- is the formula for getting them to move, to do something. Sitting under siege with no hope of new success will drag on fighters' enthusiasm. In the end, ISIS forces might commit collective suicide, but suicide is generally forbidden in Islamic texts and Islamist suicide/homicide bombings in the cause of jihad will be a bitter memory in Islam's history.

Limit ISIS's Options

Is it possible to talk in some productive way with Islamic State's leaders? Originally, they wanted to lure the United States into a new ground war in the Middle East. This failed. U.S. President Barack Obama refused to fight on terrain chosen by the enemy. Perhaps ISIS leaders, or some of them, can be convinced to meet with the coalition. Could something of value be offered them to stand down instead of insisting on being killed?

The coalition could give minor legitimacy to ISIS if there were a public call (not an "appeal") for talks. This would not involve negotiations, let alone diplomatic recognition as some kind of a state, but talks. The Islamic State caliphate structure has to go. Discussions would be private but their existence must be public, showing that ISIS is willing to discuss its future.

Two broad subjects could be discussed: the war and the Islamic State as a structure. As to the war, it's a hard fact for the Islamic State that its fate in Syria and Iraq is sealed. The question then is, if the so-called caliphate is in the process of being destroyed, does ISIS leadership want to do anything other than submit to fate? It could well be -- and probably is -- that martyrdom will be preferred by the great majority.

Discussions on the Islamic State as an Islamic religious institution should obviously prioritize religious representatives, leaving perhaps a minimal role for governments. Privately and to some extent publicly, many Islamist Muslim leaders opposed declaring a caliphate and naming a caliph. Al-Qaeda, in the person of its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, opposed this and also condemned ISIS's extreme brutality, in particular targeting brother Sunni Muslims. Al-Qaeda's strategy, in contrast with ISIS, is a long game, a patient strategy of infiltration and internal takeover, the main example of which is the Nusra Front in Syria. The offer of talks among Muslims should be put as an invitation to ISIS leaders to demonstrate their superiority as a religious and ideological leader in the Islamic world. Even if they refuse, as is likely, there could be a shaming effect.

Could the Islamic State's leaders be offered terms to abandon its occupation of cities? This is not absolutely unthinkable. For example, could they be allowed to surrender? What kind of surrender? If they agree to leave the cities, could they be guaranteed free passage, if necessary taking human shields, a horrible permission that nonetheless would leave behind an urban civilian population and city intact? Some jihadist fighters would go back into battle but some would be glad at the opportunity to get out of jihad.

And who on the Islamic State's side would make decisions? That is, who are the top leaders now besides the self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? If, through good intelligence and luck, al-Baghdadi were meantime eliminated, would that change the structure of attitudes among the leadership? In Mosul, Raqqa, and Fallujah, among the local populations, many ISIS leaders are known. Could they be lured into talks, even separate talks in each city? These are possibilities that ought to be tested.

For after all, as bad as it is, civilian life in Mosul, Raqqa, and Fallujah today is far from the worst hell on earth. They are relatively peaceful, it seems, even if made so by terror. But the level of ruthless violence is less than it once was. Given the human and property destruction in other cities where Islamic State was ousted -- Ramadi, Kobani, and others -- everything should be tried to stanch the Islamic State's scorched-earth tendencies and to limit the damage and loss of life.

In the end, Sun Tzu's advice is still good: "You should take away the energy of their armies, and take away the heart of their generals."