Wanted: A US strategy for the Islamic State

When it comes to the Islamic State, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledges, "We do not have a strategy, yet."

To the Islamic State and its worldwide recruitment class, Obama's indecision is weakness. While the West ponders present and future challenges, the Islamic State's ranks and capabilities are growing.

Members loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) wave ISIL flags as they drive around Raqqa June 29, 2014.
Members loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) wave ISIL flags as they drive around Raqqa June 29, 2014.

Clearly defined goals will have to be the basis of a coherent strategy to address the threat posed by Islamic State fighters, who currently control a third of Iraq and large parts of Syria.

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Obama ran on a platform to disengage the United States from Bush's postwar fiasco in Iraq, and avoid entanglements in the Middle East. He hoped the Islamic State would stay in Syria where its impact could be contained. However, wishful thinking is not a policy.

U.S. officials have only just come to realize the Islamic State's broader agenda. It seeks to destroy borders created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved up the Middle East allocated territories to Britain and France. The Islamic State has been true to its word, establishing a caliphate and enforcing its Salafist version of Shari'a law.

When Islamic State fighters stopped at Samarra and pivoted to attack the Iraqi Kurds, the United States thought Kurdish peshmerga could stop them. But ISIS took the Mosul Dam and overran Mahmour just 30 kilometers from Erbil. With peshmerga in full retreat, Obama acted in a nick of time to save Erbil from being overrun. Limited air strikes and an airlift of small arms were just enough to bolster the peshmerga and stop the Islamic State's advance.

After arresting the Islamic State's march on Erbil, U.S. goals evolved from stopping the advance of Islamic State fighters to preventing genocide. The U.S. expanded air strikes and dropped supplies to save Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.

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U.S. goals continued to evolve after the operation on Mount Sinjar. Efforts focused on retaking territory seized by the Islamic State. Air strikes allowed the pershmerga and Iraqi Special Forces to reclaim the strategic Mosul Dam.

The Islamic State's battlefield successes represent an immediate security crisis. In response, the United States must decide if its goals are to:

  • Prevent the Islamic State from expanding in Iraq.
  • Stop genocide.
  • Retake territory seized by the Islamic State in Iraq.
  • Destroy the Islamic State, attacking it in Iraq and Syria.

Obama maintains there is no military solution to long-term challenges posed by the Islamic State. He hopes that the establishment of an inclusive government in Baghdad will drain the swamp of support for the Islamic State. However, political differences between Iraqis may be irreconcilable.

All of the above options require American air power, targeting Islamic State artillery, armor, and fighters. They also rely on local ground forces — peshmerga and Kurdish militia from Syria — to engage Islamic State fighters in the field.

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The Kurdistan Regional Government wants to expand security assistance with Western countries. Peshmerga need sophisticated weapons such as artillery, mortars, and armored personnel carriers. So far, 9 countries have pledged weapons to bolster the peshmerga. The Obama administration should coordinate these transfers and help build Kurdish capabilities through a systematic train and equip program. Given the brutal tactics of ISIS, hand guns and half measures will not be enough.

The People's Protection Forces of the the Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD) are indispensable for confronting Islamic State forces in Syria and Sengar, a triangle of territory in Iraq on the border with Syria and Turkey. The U.S. should support the PYD and publicly recognize its battlefield contributions.

Beyond a political and security strategy, the West also needs a long-term plan for de-radicalization.. Economic development and education can promote moderation in the broader Muslim community. Addressing the roots of Muslim rage will be a generational endeavor, requiring multilateral and regional cooperation. Muslims themselves must be engaged in the modernization of Islam.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He is also author of the forthcoming book, "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East" (Transaction Publishers).