The Skeptics

Washington Rolls Out Another Myopic Anti-ISIS Strategy

Last week in Washington, an extraordinary gathering of foreign and defense ministers of thirty nations met to chart the next phase of the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) campaign. All indicators suggest the meeting’s outcome will only deepen the strategic failure that has plagued the mission to date.

Not everything associated with the mission has been a failure, however. On the tactical and operational levels there have been a number of fairly meaningful successes. Since whole divisions of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) disintegrated in battle against ISIS in 2014, the army has regrouped, retrained some of its forces and have won some tough battles.

Beginning in late 2015, the ISF recaptured Ramadi, Tikrit and last month Fallujah. Next in their sights is Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, the self-proclaimed Iraqi capital of ISIS. The implications from senior U.S. and NATO officials is that ISIS must be militarily defeated in Iraq (and eventually Syria) in order to keep the US homeland safe.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told NPR’s Morning Edition last week that “Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq are our two primary objectives because they are…the self-proclaimed capital(s) of the self-proclaimed caliphate.” He said the coalition needed to retake those cities to “make sure that there isn't any ISIS planning done there. It's important to show that there cannot be and will not be an Islamic State based upon this ideology.”

The same day Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a meeting of several foreign ministers and warned that “If we do not succeed in Iraq, none of our countries will be safer.” But are Carter and Kerry correct? Will the retaking of the physical territory held by ISIS keep the United States safe?  Based on the past fifteen years of experience—and of the past six months in particular—the answer would appear to be a resounding no.

The administration and NATO’s favored tactics to accomplish the objectives outlined above are primarily based on two major pillars. First, using various types of intelligence, attack ISIS personnel from manned and unmanned bombers. Second, empower or train local fighters on the ground to defeat the Islamic State. In Iraq that is primarily the ISF, Shia militia, and Kurdish Peshmerga. In Syria, it is the U.S.-designated “moderate” Islamic rebels. In practice, both columns are crumbling, damaging Western interests in the process.

In Iraq, there is a tenuous relationship between the official government troops, the Shia militias and the Peshmerga. When ISIS is eventually defeated militarily—and it will be—the animosities and competing national agendas that plagued the three groups before there was an ISIS will come back to the fore. Along with the restive Sunni minority, it’s not at all clear another civil war won’t break out in Iraq following the collapse of ISIS.

In Syria, U.S. and coalition aircraft have mistakenly killed innocent civilians along with ISIS fighters. That was put on ugly public display this past weekend when allegedly upwards of one hundred civilians were killed by coalition attacks. It was so bad that two of the leading rebel groups the United States supports were harsh in their condemnation of the attack, demanding accountability for “those responsible for such major violations,” claiming the deadly mistakes amounted to an effective “recruitment tool for terrorist organizations.”