Skip to main content

The only way to defeat ISIS

By Mark Hertling
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling spent 16 months in Northern Iraq
  • He says he learned about the great social, geographic challenges of the region
  • U.S. airstrikes, Special Forces may help but won't gain victory over ISIS
  • Hertling: Only the Iraqi, Kurd security forces have the potential to oust ISIS

Editor's note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, served in the Army for more than 37 years and spent more than three years in Iraq. He is a CNN military analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The major portion of the area Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is attempting to control for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is the same place I called home for 16 months of my life.

Commanding Multinational Division North during the "surge" in 2007-08 -- a command that required securing four of the five provinces ISIS now desires to occupy -- allowed me to study the geographic, cultural, infrastructure and political and economic complexities of northern Iraq.

Anyone who supports fighting Baghdadi's ISIS in this area ought to be aware of the challenges the land and the people will present.

During our time there, we countered Iraqi insurgents, elements of al Qaeda in Iraq, homegrown terrorist groups like the 1920s Brigade, Nashqabandia, Ansar Al Sunna and a variety of other gang-like organizations.

New U.S. airstrikes in Iraq
Will ISIS execution change Iraq strategy?
Yazidi refugees desperate for help
Analyst: Political moves in Iraq

During that time, I had more than 30,000 U.S. forces and a significant U.S. Air Force support element contributing to our operations. We also coordinated with an emerging Iraqi army (five divisions, 60,000 men in our area), Iraqi police force (about 40,000 men and a few hundred women in the various cities in the region) and a small and uncommitted Iraqi air force, with pilots training in helicopters and prop planes.

The most important thing I learned is how tough it is to fight a determined enemy there. Another takeaway: To succeed, the government of Iraq must want to provide security in the area more than the United States does.

The four Arab provinces in the area between Baghdad and the borders with Turkey and Syria are about the size of our states of Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey. Ninewa -- with Mosul as the capital city -- shares a 175-mile border with Syria; Ninewa and two other provinces have a 400-mile border with the three Kurdish provinces (also a part of Iraq but viewed by most within their borders as the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government).

The Kurdish provinces, in turn, share a 200-mile border with Turkey and a 300-mile border with Iran.

Four major rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, Diyala and Zaab) and two major mountain ranges (the now-famous Sinjar and the lesser-known but more mountainous Hamrins) break the landscape, which is mostly desert, palm groves and irrigation canals.

There are 10 major cities (five of which are among Iraq's top nine in population), dozens of smaller towns and hundreds of mud-hut villages. More than 11 million people make northern Iraq their home; I would suggest that over 90% do not want ISIS in control.

The land is diverse, and the culture is exceedingly complex. Though I studied this area for months prior to the deployment and then lived, traveled and interacted with the people in the area for over a year and a half, I still had difficulties understanding many cultural dynamics -- even with the advantage of State Department professionals, intelligence analysts from top three-letter agencies and cultural subject matter experts from universities and think tanks at my disposal.

It will take more than just wanting to beat ISIS to win in this area.

Tribes are critical in Iraq, and in the north, there are seven major tribal confederations and over 100 subtribes. While many believe the north is Sunni Arab territory, I found that while many tribes were indeed Sunni, a slightly smaller number were Sunni-Shiite mix, and some were exclusively Shiite.

One tribal confederation -- the Shammars -- is on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, they have subtribes that are Sunni and Shiite, and their members roam freely across this national boundary with more allegiance to tribal law than to government of Iraq authority.

When we were in northern Iraq, we had evidence that some members of a tribe were assisting in smuggling weapons and foreign fighters from Syria into our area of operations. I would suspect they have provided the same service for ISIS.

When growing and training the Iraqi army and police during our tour, we realized it wasn't enough to recruit individual soldiers or police for the force. We had to garner tribal support.

It becomes obvious why the Iraqi security forces fell in the wake of ISIS advances: Since the central government in Baghdad did not meet the wishes of the tribal sheiks in the north, the leaders' calculation was that it was better to back those who would overthrow the government.

All this gives some indication of the challenges new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has in winning back the north from the grips of ISIS. Gaining tribal allegiance to support a government counteroffensive against ISIS is an issue al-Abadi understands; it took U.S. forces years to comprehend this critical cultural nuance.

Tribal feuds occur due to clashes over resources in rural areas, control of economic sectors in cities, honor issues (promises of marriage) and crimes committed by members of one tribe against another. The Kurdish region is not immune from tribal loyalties: The Talabanis make up one major political party (the PUK); the Barzanis make up the other (the KDP).

There has been much discussion of the importance of the control of Mosul Dam. But that is only one of many key infrastructure elements. The Bayji Oil refinery, the Kirkuk oil fields, the Mullah Abdullah Power Plant, the Ports of Enty at Rabbiya and Habur Gate, and key religious shrines like the newly renovated Shiite mosque in Samarra are also critical to the political and economic future of Iraq.

Each is probably on ISIS's "control" list, just as the elimination of security forces and other religions is on the "destroy" list of this horrific organization. Controlling or destroying each will result in humanitarian disasters as ISIS broadens its reach.

A more inclusive Iraqi government is currently forming, and hopefully it will gain momentum in addressing a nationalistic approach to countering ISIS.

It will require many things: an Iraqi national will; a condemnation by sheiks and imams -- and other moderates in the Islamic religion -- of the horrors committed by ISIS; an Iraqi and Kurdish military adequately supplied and trained, centrally controlled and supported by the people and not used for sectarian purposes; help from its friends and allies in the region and beyond; and taking advantage of mistakes ISIS is increasingly making in its messaging campaign.

Special operators designating key targets and U.S. air power dropping bombs will contribute, but ultimately only the Iraqis, including the Kurds, can turn this around.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT