The brutal, determined foe that is the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) arose from the continued sectarian chaos in Iraq following the US invasion, and it has become particularly adept at exploiting Sunni fears of Shia oriented governments in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Though intelligence estimates place active ISIS membership at only between 20,000 and 30,000, its self-proclaimed “holy caliphate” has been remarkably successful at sustaining itself, and has also managed to reach beyond its Syrian desert and Northern Iraq zones of control to engineer terrorist attacks abroad, with which we are now all too familiar.
What should US policy be regarding the challenge of this barbaric organization? General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in his confirmation hearings that “this is a long-term endeavor,” indicating further that US military forces by themselves cannot defeat ISIS. Among the overriding conundrums faced by the Western allies is how to accomplish their goals without excessively destabilizing or destroying the lives of an estimated 10 million civilians in ISIS-controlled territory, and also without creating vast new cadres of radicalized individuals, determined to exact vengeance against us in the form of future organized terrorist successors to ISIS.
The US is faced with an asymmetric conflict calling for flexible, asymmetric responses utilizing a strategic and tactical mix of capabilities. However, neighboring countries have a much more direct and concrete strategic interest in defeating ISIS than does America. The regional nations know the local culture and politics much better than we can. They should assume the lead position in defeating the Islamic State.
Though the overall territory they control has been reduced in recent months, ISIS still dominates a significant area straddling the border between Iraq and Syria, including the ISIS “capitol city” of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul in Iraq. A major strategic goal is to liberate Raqqa and Mosul. Defense secretary Ashton Carter recently declared there are “big arrows” pointing at these cities as part of US planning. But there are over 200,000 innocent persons living in Raqqa and some 1.5 million civilians in Mosul, whom ISIS fighters can effectively use as human shields against indiscriminately heavy bombardment or potential assaults from conventional US “boots on the ground.”
A further complication is that Mosul is in Iraq. That fact entails special considerations for US forces. Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Abadi says he is “adamantly opposed” to any significant numbers of new US troops being deployed in Iraq. Is there anyone who seriously says this Iraqi position should simply be ignored? Should the US make war against the very Iraq government so much US blood and treasure was expended to establish?
It should be obvious that US military efforts against the Islamic State pose risks of unanticipated complications similar to those that occurred after the US invasion of Iraq. What may have been seen as a “simple” military matter could become a slippery slope to far wider US involvement. One would expect that “deficit hawks” in Washington would wish to think carefully about those risks. Yet, incredibly, the prevailing attitude in Congress seems oblivious to the substantial risks inherent in this situation. The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has actually opined that “…a small component of American forces with an international force…could take out this caliphate.” A “small component?” Seriously? How many times did the Congress and the American people hear almost those exact words said regarding “taking out” Saddam?
The challenge posed by the Islamic State is frustrating. But smart policy requires clear-headed analysis of available data, as well as due deference to lessons recent history has taught regarding severe unanticipated consequences that can follow what had appeared to be an easy “Mission Accomplished” solutions in the Middle East.
In the absence of reliable indigenous governing assets being available for long-term stability, US troop deployments can only achieve partial success. Our efforts in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that the appearance of military success may result in increased radicalization of local populations and protracted conflict. The US and its allies cannot occupy or govern a country as large as Syria without unsustainable costs in both blood and treasure. This reality is among the reasons the Islamic State has sought to bait Western countries into sending ground troops to Syria.
The US is a nation of laws, operating under the principles and structures set out in the Constitution. The Constitution grants to Congress alone the power to declare war. If those in Congress who engage in “tough talk” regarding ISIS are serious about “taking out this caliphate” through greatly enhanced US military operations, let them honor their Constitutional obligations and declare war. It is our firm belief no such war declaration is warranted. But if the “tough talkers” are unwilling to fulfill their own constitutional duties in this connection, what does that say about their overall sense of responsibility?
Only a political solution can effectively drain the wellsprings of discontent and enmity from which terrorist organizations emerge, whereas military overreach by foreign powers fills those wellsprings to overflowing.
As we contemplate the best way forward regarding ISIS, we should ever keep in mind the enormous numbers of US service members who have already returned from the Middle East with broken bodies and minds, and the trillions of dollars wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan. The risks of the US being drawn into a deep military commitment against ISIS, with no apparent exit, is not justifiable in the totality of the complex circumstances in Syria and Iraq today. In late January Defense Secretary Carter again addressed the US determination to retake both Raqqa and Mosul and defeat the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, yet he cautioned there is a need for a “state of permanent vigilance” regarding the challenges ahead. Permanent vigilance combined with nuanced, multidimensional strategy is what will best keep the US safe over the long term. There is no “magic bullet,” no simple, sustainable resolution to this conflict.
Available evidence of the current realities on the ground in the affected areas has led military leaders to conclude a significantly more aggressive military policy than we are now pursuing toward the Islamic State would not be prudent. We agree.
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