In recent weeks, Islamist militants have unleashed a terrifying campaign in northern Iraq that threatens to suck in other countries in the region and lay waste to the Middle East in a doomsday-like sectarian bloodbath between Sunnis and Shiites.
The swift and striking takeover of large swaths of territory suggests the Sunni radicals may be hard to defeat, and certainly the Iraqi army has proved no match for the group known as The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
So far, President Barack Obama has resisted calls for intervention. If the region falls apart in murderous mayhem, however, the United States may be forced to get more directly involved.
But how to defeat 15,000 savage fighters who have amassed a reported $2 billion dollars in assets along with territory the size of Maine?
David Kilcullen, a senior counterinsurgency advisor to General David Petraeus during the war in Iraq, offered five ways to defeat the radicals.
1. Scorched Earth
Using American airpower, blast the ISIL strongholds from the sky, and have Iraqi troops fight the militants on the ground.
Given that the White House has shown little enthusiasm for involvement on this scale, and that distinguishing between rebels and civilians from the air can be hard, this is not a likely scenario — at least not now.
2. Re-capture strategic positions
Most of the ground that ISIL controls is desert and so a few strategic attacks could significantly set back the radicals.
Iraqi Security Forces and pro-government militias could start by securing the roads around Baghdad and then push north toward the Syrian border to cut off ISIL’s supply lines there.
This might not be as easy as it sounds, though there is an outside possibility that the lost territory can be regained with just a handful of battles.
3. The pincer movement
Hit them from the east and the west simultaneously.
Iran is an ally of the Syrian regime which has battled rebel groups such as ISIL for years. If the two regimes decide to coordinate an assault, Iran could attack the militants from the east just as Syrian government forces attacks from the west.
The Shiite government of Iran could even send troops to both flanks of the attack in order to prop up the forces of the Syrian regime. The Iranian government is reportedly already sending drones and military supplies to its Shiite allies in Iraq, but if the country ever decided on more direct military involvement, its powerful army could be capable of squeezing ISIL from each side.
4. Take control of key infrastructure
ISIL has already captured several petroleum fields in Syria and reportedly operate a black market sale of fuel that helps finance their campaign.
In Iraq, they have set their sights on Beiji, the nation's largest refinery — a strategic piece of infrastructure that should be won back to deprive the Sunni radicals of a potential revenue stream.
5. Divide and conquer
The Iraqi military on its own probably doesn’t have the strength to divide the forces of ISIL, which are spread between Syria and Iraq. But with the help of the Kurds, they might be able to do just that by taking control of the Syrian border.
The Kurds, who have controlled their own autonomous region in northeastern Iraq for years, have used the present conflict to solidify territorial claims and take control of the strategically important oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Though the Kurds so far have shown little interest in fighting the radicals, they present a formidable force. Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, are disciplined, well-trained and well-equipped.
In the end, though, military tactics might win the battle without winning the war.
Like the Taliban in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion, ISIL has risen to prominence because of fundamental political problems. And those won’t going away, even if the radicals are defeated on the battlefield.
“The real problem is political,” said Kilcullen, who recently authored the counterinsurgency bookOut of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla. “Unless the Iraqis can get their shit together politically, [a military victory] doesn’t really matter.”