Defeating ISIS on the ground

October 2, 2014

boots on the ground




“The Israelis, too, have learned the hard way that ground forces are integral to victory. Indeed, their 2006 battle against Hezbollah made heavy use of air, naval, and rocket attacks, but to little avail. Israeli tanks, moreover, were destroyed by Hezbollah guerillas, who made effective use of advanced technology to fight the powerful Israeli military to a standstill.  The lesson then and now is clear: In significant respects, air power is irrelevant to modern-day conflicts. Military success today requires small-scale infantry units who can fight lethally and with precision in populated areas filled with civilian non-combatants”  From ‘Air Power Alone Cannot Win Wars’ by John Guardiano, Former Marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran.


On the night of September 22-23, the US launched a new phase of the ongoing air campaign against the Islamic State, (IS) including multiple targets within Syria.  In speaking about the strikes, the President again promised our involvement would not involve “boots on the ground”, but would be fought solely from the air and rely on others for any ground assault.  Over the next few days, the administration fed the public with aerial film footage of what appeared to be a massive air assault destroying enemy buildings and communications apparatus.  However, by the end of the week, we also learned that the Islamic State was conquering new territory against the Kurds in northern Syria near Turkey and in the Bagdad region of Iraq against the Iraqi Army.  In fact, the Islamic State may have seized as many as 60 Kurdish villages.  Americans inexperienced with the dynamics of modern warfare are now perplexed as to how such seemingly overwhelming and crushing Air Strikes could not stem the tide of an “Army” of roughly 30,000 fighters.  Can’t our modern, expensive and high tech aircraft, now including the advanced F-22 fighter, stop this force?  The answer, as I will explain, is that the pictures we are seeing on cable just don’t comport with the reality on the ground.  I write this having read a great deal about the events and forces, but part of my assessment comes from 24 years of service (approximately half on active duty and half in the reserve component) as an Army Infantry Officer.  This includes the experience of seeing modern warfare play out on the “ground” in places like Helmand Afghanistan in contrast to what comes across about warfare in the media.


First, despite the pictures on CNN and Fox News, this is not a crushing air campaign. In just over six weeks US aircraft had flown just over 150 air missions against ISIS.  That pace has not substantially changed since the decision to hit targets in Syria. For a true air campaign comparable to what we saw in Desert Storm, that is the number of sorties we should be seeing every day or two.  We would have attempted to put rotary wing and Harrier type aircraft in northern Iraq or somewhere else with a quick turn-around time for missions.  We would be using a variety of systems from all services, some dedicated to the destruction of communications and command and control.  However, some systems like the Apache Attack Helicopter would be used to destroy vehicles and kill Islamic State fighters as they attempted to move toward the Kurds or Iraqi Army.


Sadly, unlike what we “should” be doing in this air campaign: “The U.S. is relying mostly on warplanes already positioned in the region for its air war against the Islamic State, as opposed to dispatching a major buildup of aerial forces that happened in previous campaigns……. A Pentagon official said there are no plans to send additional U.S. aircraft into the theater.” According to the Washington Times, which goes on to claim that from the beginning of the air campaign, “U.S. Central Command has been choosing predominately small tactical targets in Iraq. It so far has held off from targeting harder-to-find objectives in urban environments where the Islamic State, also called ISIL and ISIS, maintains headquarters, start-up regime offices, courts and military installations.”


isisIssues with the Air Campaign aside, we cannot win without US troops on the ground.  As the quote by John Guardiano makes clear, the Israelis fighting a similar enemy quickly learned technology is not the “trump card” in modern combat against light, terrorist forces.  Forces not tied to the Hague and Geneva Conventions and willing to shed uniforms and hide among civilian populations. They must be “targeted” and destroyed one by one.  This doesn’t mean the use of large scale conventional forces, as too large a force can actually work to our disadvantage due to the substantial and vulnerable logistics “tail”, which can be targeted by these types of forces.


What we need is a force similar to what we used during the early stages of Operation Enduring Freedom when we took down the Taliban government in Afghanistan from October through December 2001.  In that operation, we used a few hundred special operations soldiers and CIA operatives to fight with the local Afghan forces facing the Taliban.  We provided tactical advice, but more importantly we coordinated our air assets with the “rebel” ground offensives, using laser guided munitions against the Taliban being directed on target by US Special Operations forces.  With those US military and CIA forces “embedded” with the Afghans, we were able to determine where to focus air assets and which enemy commanders could be “turned” to join our side.  The Taliban and associated Al Qaeda forces were quickly routed.  That said, the decision not to put US troops on the ground when we had Bin Laden and Al Qaeda leaders surrounded at Tora Bora arguably allowed him to escape.  Being unwilling to risk any US ground forces at Tora Bora probably caused many more deaths over the coming years.  That is similar to not using any ground troops against the Islamic State now, and paying in blood in the coming years.


Thankfully, despite the President’s assurances, we are deploying 500 members of the First Infantry Division staff to help with command and control.  That is a good start, and will give us a 2-star General and Division commander to help coordinate ground forces.  The next step is to deploy special operations forces and advisors to work closely with the Kurdish Pershmerga Forces in both Iraq and Syria.  This will be a sensitive subject with the Iraqi government, but we should also consider embedding forces with the Iraqi military.  The “footprint” of US forces can be kept small, but we will need to push for stationing Air Assets like Apaches close enough for a quick turn-around time on missions.  This may call for small basing of medium range aircraft in Northern Iraq.  We should be pushing more air assets into theater and pushing for closer basing for quicker turn-around and more missions.


Despite the perceived “war weariness” of the American people, polls tell us Americans know the danger of the Islamic State and want it destroyed.  They are ready for this fight.  In my personal dealings with the military, the overwhelming consensus is that we must destroy the Islamic State, including the use of ground forces.  These are the same individuals who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are willing to go back to fight this barbaric enemy.  Frankly, most are itching to fight back.  The world is watching what we do in facing this modern evil, and this is a moment in which we are called to act as the “exceptional” and good nation we have been throughout history.  That includes the sacrifice of fighting on the ground to win.



God Bless America

By: Bill Connor

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Connor of Orangeburg SC is a decorated 24 year Army and combat veteran. He is an expert in counterinsurgency combat. Connor spent 12 years (1990 – 2002) of full time service as an Airborne Ranger, holding various commands such as Ranger Company Commander and General’s Aide. Connor recently made the Colonel’s List and will soon take the official rank as full bird Colonel.  Since leaving full time service, Connor has continued to serve in the National Guard (2003 – 2008) and has served in the Army Reserve 2008 – present.

Connor volunteered for combat duty in Afghanistan where he served as Senior US Advisor in Helmand Province and American military liaison to British forces in Afghanistan. For his service during deployment, Connor was awarded the Bronze Star. He currently is Director of the Army’s Command and General Staff College (ILE) in S.C., and is a member of the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team.

Connor, along with partner W. Thomas Smith Jr. founded National Defense Consultants LLC, a partnership providing clients with military analysis ranging from geostrategy to special operations; counterterrorism; ground, Naval, and air combat; military leadership and military law. Connor is also the author of the book “Articles from War”

Connor is a graduate of The Citadel and the University of South Carolina (USC) School of Law where he earned a Juris Doctorate degree. He is an attorney and Law Partner for “Horger and Connor, LLC where he has earned an “AV Preeminent” rating, the highest peer evaluation rating of ethics and ability for an attorney practicing law in the United States.

Connor is a former candidate for the US Senate, (2014) as well as having run for S.C. Lieutenant Governor (making the runoff election in the Republican primary 2010.) Connor also served as National Security Advisor for presidential candidate and GOP nominee runner-up Rick Santorum.

Connor recently served as GOP Chairman for South Carolina’s sixth district. Currently he serves as the Chairman of the Board of Orangeburg Christian Academy, and on the State Board of “Youth Challenge”.

Connor has been a contributing author for The South Carolina Conservative Dot Com since 2012.




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