Not Containment, Annihilation: Focusing the Fight to Destroy ISIS


Wesley Smith

June 8, 2017

5 min read




It has been said there is a new sheriff in town in the person of President Donald Trump. Significantly, there is also a new general on the global battlefield to defeat ISIS and the broader threat of radical Islamic terror. That man is Secretary of Defense James Mattis.  The retired four-star general—a former enlisted Marine, a scholar and student of history—Mattis is re-shaping the fight in the global war on terror.

On January 28th, in one of his first actions as Commander in Chief, President Trump ordered his military and national security leaders to submit a plan to utterly destroy ISIS.  He gave them thirty days to complete the report.  Secretary Mattis submitted the report to the President on February 27th.  Although the strategy recommended in the document has already been implemented, last week, for the first time, Mattis commented on the report.

The campaign to defeat the jihadist terrorist group in Syria and Iraq has shifted from attrition to annihilation tactics. “Our intention,” said General Mattis, “is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa.  We’re not going to allow them to do so.  We’re going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate.”  Coalition forces have surrounded the city of Mosul and Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, to ensure that ISIS is annihilated.

Secretary Mattis elaborated on the plan. “Two significant changes resulted from President Trump’s review of our findings.  First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities.  Secondly, he directed a tactical shift.”  That shift is to surround ISIS fighters instead of pushing them out of different territories.  No longer is the plan to merely wear ISIS down, to defeat them through attrition.  Since ISIS fighters are not usually known to surrender, the plan is for them to die in place.

One of the most significant parts of this new plan is delegation.  The President has delegated the strategy to defeat ISIS to his Secretary of Defense and his senior Combatant Commanders.  Agreeing on the strategy, these key leaders have then delegated authority to the Operational Commanders to implement the strategy and to flesh out the plans to do so.  Then, these leaders have delegated to the tactical commanders and their soldiers on the ground the authority to carry out the surround and kill mission.

It is the way military campaigns are supposed to work.  But this is new.  In the Obama Administration, all military operations were closely supervised from the White House.  The strategy was to “contain” and eventually “destroy” ISIS.  The Department of Defense and its Operational Commanders had to frequently get approval from the Commander-in-Chief as to next steps.  At a tactical level, troops complained of frequently being hamstrung on the battlefield as to how to execute the fight.  Those days apparently are gone, and good riddance.

In an interview with CBS News’ Face the Nation, Mattis said, “Our strategy right now is to accelerate the campaign against ISIS.  It is a threat to all civilized nations and the bottom line is, we are going to move in an accelerated and reinforced manner, throw them on their back foot.  We have already shifted from attrition tactics where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them.  What we intend to do by surrounding them is to not allow them to fall back, thus reinforcing themselves as they get smaller and smaller, making the fight tougher and tougher . . . that surrounding operation is going on and, once surrounded, we will go in and clean them out.”

All of this does not mean that the threat of ISIS terror attacks is going away, whether they are directed or merely inspired by ISIS.  ISIS is not only an army of terrorists.  It is a hateful ideology that uses religion, tied to sharia supremacism, as its justification for cowardice and violence.  We are in a war of ideas.  However, by dramatically defeating this band of radical jihadists and taking their territory away, we deprive them of the illusion of success.  They are revealed to be failures in their mission – would-be jihadists realize they are not joining the strongest entity on the globe, and in fact are likely signing their own death warrant if they join.  This impacts their ability to recruit new members.  It also negatively impacts the morale of the fighters already in its ranks.  It impacts their financial resources.  Secretary Mattis says the idea is to “humiliate” them and to humiliate “their message of hatred, of violence and to divorce them from any nation giving them protection . . . .”

This is key component – exactly what we called for – in our 5-point plan to defeat and destroy ISIS and Islamic jihadists. As we said, “[R]adical Islamic terrorism requires us to show strength in destroying the hubs of these networks so that the rest of their followers will see them for what they truly are.” Now the Administration is implementing a plan to do just that.

It is important to note that this new strategy does not change the rules of engagement as it applies to protecting innocent life.  The U.S.-led coalition is committed to protecting non-combatants and civilians in whatever way possible.

But it is a welcome strategy. It is a good plan.  We salute Secretary Mattis for his leadership.  We also acknowledge gratefully the selflessness and bravery of our men and women in uniform who are up close and personal in the fight to destroy this dark and deranged threat to all of humanity.