"One small attack on an oil pipeline in southeast Iraq, conducted for an estimated $2,000 dollars, cost the Iraqi government more than $500 million in lost oil revenues. That is a return on investment of 25 million percent."
-John Robb: "Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization"
In the popular discourse surrounding American military interventions little effort is spent on educating the public about who the enemies are or what their history, goals, strategy, and tactics are. We see this with the media punditry surrounding ISIS today. There is all this talk about whether or not boots on the ground will be necessary, whether this is or is not a war (as supposed to what?), et cetera. What I saw painfully little of in the media coverage, was discussion of how ISIS formed, its history up to that point, or how it was likely to react to the different strategies that its enemies are contemplating deploying against it.
I suppose some of this could be the result of simple racism: "motivation?!, history?!, tactics?! These are just terrorists who hate us for our freedom what difference does it make what they are hoping to achieve or how? Plus they are, you know, brown and they pray kind of funny. Just let our obviously superior war machine crush them and be done with it." However, at least in this case, I think this discussion is held back more by the frightening implications it would have.
Indeed, looking at ISIS's history and motivations reveals that they have little to fear from the American military, boots on the ground or no. ISIS emerged as an offshoot of Al-Quadea in Iraq and cut its teeth fighting against the US Occupation. Much like the other Iraqi insurgent groups, it was able to employ anonymity, systems disruption, and asymetric warfare tactics to prevent US military operations (not matter how successful in isolation) from meaningfully advancing the US and Iraqi governments long term political goals, which is the ultimate criteria by which the success or failure of a military strategy must be judged.
America is often said to have the most capable military in the world. This is definitely true in the narrow sense of operational capability; no group can match the US Military where the bullets are actually flying. The words 'tactics' and 'strategy' are often used interchangeably, but they actually have importantly distinct meanings. Strategy refers to overarching goals and long run plans to achieve them; tactics refers to the immediate small scale objectives and operations that (hopefully) move one closer to achieving strategic goals. I would suggest that the US military is unmatched tactically, but ISIS's strategy will make mincemeat of it, nonetheless.
The US military's role (and that of any modern military) is to take and hold territory, it does this with unsurpassed efficacy. However, the taking and holding of territory, a tactic, is only really useful as part of a greater strategy of making that territory passive and economically productive. However, in the context a modern post industrial economy doing this requires massive supply chains, physical and administrative infrastructure, and logistical networks. These can stretch literally around the globe and certainly stretch far beyond what even the US military is capable of defending.
These form the soft underbelly of the US military industrial complex. During the US Occupation, no matter how effectively the US military defended the territory it was charged with defending, the insurgency could easily attack targets outside of this territory, sabotaging or destroying infrastructure, undermining these logistical networks, and creating a climate of chaos that prevented the development of US military occupied territory into anything peaceful or economically productive. It took nearly a decade for Iraqi oil production to be restored to pre-invasion levels let alone to increase, and that was in a climate of increasing global oil prices that cannot be counted on this time around. If ISIS and other groups like it did this to the US military once, they can do it again. Of course, the presentation of such bleak prospects to the American public would not do much to sure up public support for intervention, which I am inclined to think is not as strong as the polls are indicating.
Right now, public sentiment is reeling from seeing two videos of ISIS beheading American citizens. That something must be done is the immediate and impulsive reaction. However, the long run fundamentals of American public sentiment are that the United States is neither responsible for or capable of making the entire a world a safe place, that the government's justifications for military action cannot be trusted, and that foreign warfare costs much more in blood and treasure than it achieves in improved security. Even if the US military were capable of defeating ISIS (which it is not), it would take longer to defeat ISIS than it will for the public sentiments fundamentals to reassert themselves.