Double Trouble: American Strategic Options Regarding ISIS

Opinion Articles

On September 10, President Barak Obama announced that he had ordered the United States military to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State (known as ISIS and ISIL).  He said, “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy…  That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”  Many well-known former US officials, both Democrat and Republican, were quick to share their opinions regarding how the President’s plan might be adjusted to ensure success.  The recommendations offered by a number of these senior officials, however, exposes a troubling lack of understanding of critical on-the-ground fundamentals and an almost disregard for a decade’s worth of physical evidence.  If this advice were to be acted upon in the future, the current bad situation could deteriorate into disaster.

One week after the speech, former Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced his disapproval of the President’s vow that the mission would not result in American “boots on the ground.”  The reality, he said on CBS This Morning, is that “they're not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own…  So there will be boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy.”  Former Democratic President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, shared a very different opinion about the use of ground troops.

On September 23 he told a CNN audiencehe believed the mission would require “an extended involvement with air power and with providing intelligence and other institutional support to the people who are fighting ISIS… I actually think in this case the…strategy has a chance to succeed…  We don't need to be there on the ground and I don't think it means a land war in Iraq."  There was one important point on which both men agreed: both maintained the mission could succeed if President Obama would only follow their advice.  Current conditions in the region and an analysis of numerous wars and battles over the past two decades, however, suggest that both are wrong.

Consider a few critical facts regarding the situation with ISIS before US airstrikes began.  Many of the members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have a decade or more experience in fighting insurgent and guerilla warfare.  As most know, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has fought against the US in Iraq since 2003.  al-Baghdadi and his men are well acquainted with the capabilities and limitations of American air power, and critically, how to survive it by burrowing deeper into civilian areas.

Further, and of greater significance to the current situation, since 9/11 there has been no location in the world where modern air power – even when complemented with hundreds of thousands of ground troops – has militarily defeated a committed insurgent enemy.  The list is long and painful: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and others.

Many in recent months have argued that the 2007 surge in Iraq “set the conditions” for success in Iraq, but the Obama Administration’s inability to keep 10,000 US troops there after 2011 was, as former Army General Jack Keane recently said, “an absolute strategic failure.” Such claims, however, do not stand up to examination.  An analysis of the 2007 Iraq surge and scrutiny of the current situation in Afghanistan explains why this claim is dubious at best.

In combination with the tactical cooperation of Sunni tribes, the 2007 Iraq surge succeeded in reducing the violence by the near-destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  But as has been well chronicled in recent weeks, AQI wasn’t destroyed.  It merely limped off to reform itself, learned from its mistakes, and renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).  In 2013 ISI moved across the border into Syria to fight in the civil war, changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by February of this year launched an offensive, eventually capturing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

As I explained in a 2010 analysis, however, it wasn’t primarily the 20,000 additional ground troops the US sent to Baghdad that dramatically reduced the violence.  Then-Colonel Sean MacFarland was the commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division said, “I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaida. Maybe 75 to 80 percent of the credit for the success of the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaida and joined us in common cause… But if the Iraqi Sunnis had remained allied with al-Qaida against us, we would not have been able to achieve anything lasting or of strategic consequence.”

Even as most Western eyes were riveted on events in Iraq this summer, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated rapidly.  In a 1 October 2014 report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman assessed the current situation in Afghanistan:  “Afghanistan is still the forgotten war at a time when the Taliban is making steady gains, civilian casualties are rising, the Afghan economy is in crisis, and there still are no clear plans for any post-2014 aspect of transition,” he wrote.  “The current realities on the ground strongly indicate that the present US approach to Transition in Afghanistan will fail at the military, political, economic, and governance levels.”

The Taliban has made these troubling gains despite the fact that, according toofficial NATO figures, as of September 3 there were still 28,970 American troops in Afghanistan (and a total of 41,124 NATO troops).  It is unclear upon what logic some claim that 10,000 Americans in Baghdad would have prevented ISIS from rising, when over 40,000 NATO troops and approximately 350,000 Afghan National Army troops have proven unable to prevent the Taliban from rising.

So long as an insurgent force is willing to die for their cause and the population is unwilling to turn against them, it could take more than a decade before one side or the other – or both – are exhausted to the point a negotiated settlement ends the fighting.  The ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria still has yet to reach even stasis, as illustrated by recent gains in northern Syria at Kobani and in eastern Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad.  This extension of territory has come despite now weeks of US and allied airpower.  These gains provide stark evidence of why former President Clinton’s strategic advice of using indigenous ground troops with allied air power cannot succeed: whether it’s been the rebels in Syria, the Peshmerga in Kurdish areas, or Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq, all have proven incapable of standing firm.

I have served a total of four combat deployments in my career.  In 2009 I served as a military trainer for an Iraqi border battalion, and in 2011 on the ground throughout Afghanistan.  It is my opinion, based on all the available evidence and my own experience that if the United States follows the recommendations of either President Clinton or Secretary Gates, mission failure is the most likely outcome.

If using American air power in conjunction with unsuccessful and untrained ground fighters is likely to fail, and sending in highly trained US ground troops would likely result in a long term, bloody, and ultimately inclusive outcome, what options exist?

It is paramount that the United States set strategic objectives that can be reasonably attained.  In this current messy environment, I would recommend that the US repurpose its allied airpower to the establishment of a no-go zone some number of kilometers around all ISIS-controlled areas for the purpose of isolating ISIS and pinning it to its current territory; any ISIS forces or military vehicles that enter the zone without permission would be destroyed.  This no-go zone would be established via coordination with the US, Baghdad, and Ankara.  The Syrian regime would be informed of the location of the no-go zone in the northeastern part of their country and warned to keep their air force and ground troops from interfering or suffer a blistering coalition attack.

We would put diplomatic pressure on all the nations that border ISIS areas to effectively, aggressively control all effective logistic routes into and out of ISIS territory.  If there is a theoretical danger to the United States of ISIS-sponsored terror strikes, it is important to note the nations in and around ISIS territory face a far greater, direct threat.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular should deploy considerable numbers of ground troops at their borders to seal it so ISIS is unable to get sufficient amounts of the war-making material they need.  We might also encourage Baghdad and Riyadh to consider bolstering Iraqi troops with limited Saudi ground forces if it appears Iraq cannot adequately defend its capital city with its own troops.

Part of our diplomatic efforts should center on requiring the regional nations with the most to lose by a successful ISIS to put more skin in the game.  It appears some nations are content to let the United States expend its resources, spill its blood, in the defense of their national and regional interests.  The United States can provide the leadership and spearhead the establishment of the no-go zone, but we should insist the regional powers provide the ground troops necessary to enforce the zone and stabilize the current forward lines of contact."

Furthermore, we should increase our economic pressure on ISIS by aggressively seeking out all who do business with them and place uncomfortable pressure, if necessary, on such entities to sever ties with it.

As President Obama has already pledged, we should combine an aggressive and honest counter-social media campaign with robust Arab-led humanitarian support for all civil populations under ISIS domination for the purpose of demonstrating our support for the people.

At the same time, the United States should do more than merely ask Baghdad to form a more inclusive government; we must insist upon it.  If the United States is willing to expend its treasure, resources, and potentially blood in defense of Iraqi sovereignty (again), we must condition support on specified political developments; if ever the Sunni population in occupied areas are to turn against ISIS, they will have to be convinced Baghdad would not again abuse and marginalize them.

The ISIS fighters and leadership, meanwhile, will be denied the ability to fight their opponents on their terms.  Instead, if they venture out into the no-go zones, they will be destroyed on our terms.  As has already begun to occur, in time ISIS itself will so alienate the people under their domination – as well as some among their own group – that they lose the support or acquiescence of the local populations.  If ISIS loses the security of a pliant population and the people concurrently begin to believe their legitimate government is genuinely going to look out for their interests and give them freedoms and protections promised, ISIS’ support will eventually collapse.

It is crucial that the United States and regional nations not merely “service targets” from the air but actively seek to reduce the underlying causes of instability.  If we fail to do so, then even if by some miracle we eventually succeeded in militarily destroying ISIS, it would be a pyric victory: there would be no shortage of other groups ready and willing to take their place.  We must end the cycle of violence by applying comprehensive political, diplomatic, economic and social measures; military power has a role to play, but if the intent is to resolve the instability, military must take a subordinate role.

There has been so much damage, so many deaths, so much anguish suffered by so many, over such a long time that at this point even the best solution would require years of consistent application to bring general stability to Iraq and the Middle East at large.  But we must avoid choosing courses of action that analysis and evidence clearly indicate will likely fail.

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