The Buzz

Double Trouble: American Strategic Options Regarding ISIS

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 audience he 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.”

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