Barak Obama laid out his strategy for dealing with ISIS on Wednesday, and it was a massive improvement from the “ignore it and hope it goes away” strategy we have been using. “Don’t do Stupid Stuff” is not a strategy. What he made was the clearest statement on foreign policy we have heard from this administration to date. He appeared confident and energetic and for the first time I can remember, did not blame the past administration for the problem. Most importantly it was not about what he and America would NOT do. What he said that struck me as accurate is that “ISIS is unacceptable to America and the rest of the world.”
He said that America would lead a coalition to destroy ISIS. He threw in a fair amount of Syrian, Iraqi and Muslim support rhetoric to appear that a coalition of Muslim states was being established. The reality is that if this “coalition” is going to be effective, it will consist of Western military force and leadership with enough locals to put a Muslim face on it. We can call ISIS a Muslim problem all we want, but the fact is that this is a largely American created Muslim problem, and they are incapable of solving it without American leadership and direct military intervention.
Despite being relieved that we finally have a strategy for dealing with the problem from this administration, there are some significant shortfalls with the outlined approach. The president explicitly stated that ISIS is not Islamic. Extremist groups are the fastest growing segment of Islam. ISIS is but a symptom of the real problem. Extremist groups are not opposed by nearly half of all Muslims and actively supported by more than 25%. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and extremist factions represent somewhere between a quarter and half of what all Muslims claim to be Islam. So whether it is ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah or the next extremist faction on the NCTC’s list, the cultural support for Sunni Extremism is what must be addressed. The key shortfall in this strategy is that any strategy that separates ISIS from the culture of Islam that creates Jihadists is ultimately fruitless and will result in a Whack-a-Mole approach to the problem.
There are also some technical shortfalls with the presidents’ outlined approach to Whack-a-Mole. Delivering on the promise to destroy ISIS is potentially a logical first step in attacking the real problem. In support of the destruction of ISIS, we are expanding our footprint in Iraq by another 475 advisors. The president was very careful to claim the advisors would not have a combat role, but the reality is that they will be on the frontlines with marginally trained Iraqi and Free Syrian Army soldiers directing airstrikes. I won’t bother to mince words, but the last time I called in an air strike, it felt pretty much indistinguishable from the other combat operations in which we engaged.
The 475 advisors are grossly insufficient numbers, but once committed, those numbers will expand as necessary to give the Iraqi Army the spine to fight in the short term, and to give the Syrian Free Army the equipment and backing to do the same. Perhaps with sufficient SOF support these forces can regain control of the oil facilities that are funding ISIS’s existence. Cutting the revenue stream will be a major step forward in achieving the president’s operational goal of destroying ISIS.
And then what? Do we depart again creating yet another power vacuum? When a power vacuum exists in the middle east, it will be filled with the most violent thugs in the immediate vicinity. Toppling Hussein’s Army in Iraq and routing Al-Qaeda was child’s play for the U. S. military and once committed, destroying ISIS will be no different. Military prowess was never a problem. The problem has always been what to do with it once we conquer it. Destroying ISIS is not a strategy; it is a tactical operation.
Another problem with this “strategy” that will not play into our favor is the reliance on air power. The concept of a surgical airstrike is a media driven fantasy. Air strikes and indirect fire are anything but surgical, and both create substantial collateral damage. Collateral damage is a nice way of saying, dead women and children. No matter how much the average Muslim detests the action of ISIS, it is nothing compared to their hatred of what they see as the wholesale slaughter of Muslims at the hands of indiscriminate American airpower. Dead women and kids splashed across Al-Jazeera will not assist our PR problem in the Middle East.
I first walked across some of this region in 1991, and then again in 2003, and here we are in 2014 paying for the same ground a third time. My question is to what end? A Strategy must define an end state, which the destruction of ISIS is a relatively simple, politically feasible end state with no real value to long-term U. S. interests in the region. Without a strategy to definitively stabilize the region, we are wasting time, money, resources and lives. The concept that ISIS controlled territory will somehow coalesce into anything acceptable to the rest of the world is delusional thinking on par with U.S. forces being welcomed as liberators after the 2003 invasion.
The ISIS strategy laid out by the president is numerically inadequate to achieve the stated goal – the destruction of ISIS. Further, the destruction of ISIS gains us little in the long term. As advisors become casualties, this war-weary country will demand progress, and progress will require the deployment of more troops. The cycle will continue until we reach another breaking point. Perhaps in seven to ten years, we will choose to commit to the region and stabilize it – which is quite likely a 25-year prospect. Perhaps we will shortsightedly and prematurely pull out again, and by default choose for out children to fight this war a fourth time.
As we look to the stated goal of the strategy, it is massively shortsighted, and far too limited in scope to be effective. It is yet another recipe for ineffective intervention in the Muslim world. We have two strategic options in dealing with ISIS and the problem of Islamic extremists. The first is to stand aside and let them work it out amongst themselves. At the extreme, standing aside would undoubtedly result in the destruction of Israel who cannot exist without our support. Further, it will result in significant growth in the preeminence of Iran as the dominant power structure in the region. That is unlikely to be something we can live with, in even the short term. Finally, over the long haul, the growth of extremism will force us to intervene at some point for self-preservation.
The second option is to commit the military force and political reconstruction effort to the region for a generation if not longer, which is what it will take to achieve an internationally acceptable stabilized region. We did not allow a conquered Japan anything but unconditional surrender. We established the conditions under which they could regain independence, and those conditions were in line with our national interests. The same can be said of Germany after World War II. In this case, we are not fighting a government; we are fighting a religious structure that is masquerading as a government, and our politically correct penchant for religious freedom is hamstringing our efforts at crafting a strategy that meets American and Western interests in the region.
To end this war, we will have to mandate the religious, educational and cultural components that lead to a moderate Muslim society. That will require draconian measures initially and the willingness to force theological changes onto the second-largest religion in the world. We, the American people and the international community, are probably several terrorist attacks short of committing the considerable resources, time and effort required to eradicate the culture of extremism from the Islamic faith. Ultimately, until we are ready to name the disease, we are facing we are stuck playing Whack-a-Mole with the symptoms.
While the strategy laid out by the president was a massive improvement from the child-like approach to the past six years of “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”, it is still grossly insufficient. That insufficiency will prove counter-productive in the relatively short term. The teenage approach of relying on brute force has been tried and failed, and yet here we are – trying it again. As American air power causes collateral damage, we are stoking the fires of extremism in the Muslim world and ultimately empowering the recruiting efforts of our adversaries. Perhaps the next administration will take the adult approach to the issue and make the significantly difficult choices to avoid paying for this ground a fourth time.