(CNSNews.com) – The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “has a very, very clear strategy” for what they want to achieve, but “we do not,” says Lt. Col. Scott Mann (Ret.), a 23-year Army veteran and former Green Beret who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
ISIS has clearly stated that it intends to use horrific violence to draw the U.S. into an apocalyptic holy war to establish a caliphate, Mann told CNSNews.com.
He pointed to a propaganda video released by ISIS last year entitled No Respite that taunts Western Europe and the U.S., calling it “the shot across the bow before Paris and San Bernardino.”
“They tell us that this is a campaign of violence against Western Europe and the U.S., that they want to draw us into a manufactured holy war so that they can usher in the end of days. You’ll see it in the video. And so they have a strategy – a very, very clear strategy. They have will and capacity to pursue that strategy.
“We do not. If you look at how we have evolved in Iraq since we abandoned that place in 2011, it has been very piecemeal, it has been reactionary. Even the guys that are in there right now don’t have many authorities to get out from behind the concertina wire and actually engage those marginalized Sunni tribes.”
The U.S. not only fails to acknowledge the “real vulnerabilities of ISIS,” but actually makes things worse by “deepening the rift” between the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, Iran-sponsored Shia militias, and the marginalized Sunni populations in which ISIS is embedded even though “ISIS is most vulnerable when they are operating in those Sunni areas,” Mann said.
“They [ISIS] literally have their foot on the necks of many Sunnis,” explained Mann, who is now CEO of Mission America. “However, if you are a Sunni in a place like Fallujah, you know that the mostly Shia Iraqi government has been pretty rough on you since we left in 2011, and you also know that there are Shia brigades that are going to be coming for you. So you’re still gonna likely [make] your camp with ISIS because they are Sunni.”
ISIS “believes that the Shia are as much an enemy of the Sunni population and of this movement of the caliphate as we are. And they even say that in No Respite,” Mann continued. “All they really have to do to maintain their safe haven and to keep the Sunnis somewhat loyal to them is to continue to drive a wedge between the Shia and the Sunni,” he explained.
Airstrikes only widen that rift, Mann pointed out. “If you’re just dropping bombs on these populations, yeah, you’re hitting a few designated targets, but what you’re actually doing is you’re further inflaming the narrative that Islam, specifically Sunni tribal Islam, is under attack by the West… And how do you think that plays with them?”
Mann pointed out that the Obama administration’s 2011 troop withdrawal “allowed two sworn enemies of the United States – Russia and Iran – to insert themselves inextricably” into Iraq, and that it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the U.S. to “reassert ourselves as leaders in this situation.”
“I don’t think we need, as far as a strategy goes, I don’t think we need another 200,000 boots on the ground. What I think we need is a smaller footprint, but of a more advisory capacity with the authority to get out into these rough areas where ISIS has set up shop, like Fallujah, like Mosul. And not just work with the Kurds, but let’s work with the Sunnis who are willing to resist, and let’s create space for them like we did in ’06 with the [Arab] Awakening,” he told CNSNews.
“Now it’s not going to be easy. I’m not claiming it will be, but I don’t see any way forward in Iraq if we don’t engage and work bottom up with the Sunni populations. And that’s what my book, Game Changers, is actually all about.”
Failure to deprive ISIS of a safe haven, he noted, will have”cataclysmic” consequences for the U.S.
Mann believes that the U.S. should send up to 10,000 Special Operations forces to “create space for these [Sunni] tribes and clans to stand up on their own and fight back, while simultaneously working from the top down with the Iraqi government to build its military capacity, keep Iran at bay, and meet somewhere in the middle. That’s how it’s going to have to go.
“This worked to some degree in Afghanistan in 2010 to 2013 when we were doing it with the Pashtuns, we have done this kind of thing before in Colombia and El Salvador, and I believe it could work here. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s the only way I see forward,” he told CNSNews.
However, Mann warned that “we should not do any of this if we’re not committed to staying for the long haul…. But I believe we can bring enough political pressure to bear with our instruments of power – monetary, military, diplomatic – to persuade Iraq to be more inclusive of the Sunnis and other minority groups.”
Mann dismissed Western proposals to partition Iraq into separate areas for Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds as “a pipe dream. In every Western attempt that we’ve made at this, from the Sykes-Picot Agreement to the Durand Line in Afghanistan, we have failed miserably.”
CNSNews asked the former Green Beret what he would tell war-weary Americans who are reluctant to invest any more lives and money in the Middle East after more than a decade of war.
“The first thing I would say is that I know it’s been going on a long time, but it’s the same people who have been fighting the war.
“The second thing I would say is this is not like Vietnam. After Vietnam, we said: ‘This was a mistake, let’s go home.’ And that was fine. It was a black eye and we treated our warriors terribly, but overall we recovered.
“This is not the same. These people will follow us home, and they already have. We don’t have the luxury of American isolationism. Their end game is the return of the caliphate. They work to draw us into a manufactured holy war, and they will keep punching us in the eye at home until they get it.
“And the only way to deny them that is to defeat them in their safe havens, like the Sunni areas of Fallujah, but it’s got to be done from the bottom up, and we’re going to have to mobilize the clans and tribes that live in those areas to do most of the fighting,” Mann continued.
“It’s going to take years. We’ve already been at this for 15 years with these short-term approaches, and failed abysmally. It’s less blood, less treasure if we do it the right way, but it will take longer, and we need the American people to settle in to that and just accept that it’s not gonna be done in a short-term fashion.”