Shadow Government

Time to Rethink America’s Anti-Islamic State Strategy

Even as the United States has begun to bomb Syria, the Obama administration has yet to outline its strategy for defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), the ruthless Islamic extremist gang that now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. No doubt, administration officials will assert that they to have a ...

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Even as the United States has begun to bomb Syria, the Obama administration has yet to outline its strategy for defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), the ruthless Islamic extremist gang that now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. No doubt, administration officials will assert that they to have a strategy "to defeat and destroy" America’s latest battlefield opponent. The difficulty is that American forces are not actually on the battlefield themselves, and wars are not won solely with air power. Islamic State (IS) units will follow the example of the North Vietnamese and others who were subjected to incessant bombing. They will blend in with the population, hide their equipment, acquire more sophisticated air defenses, and, most important of all, accept hardship. They will not surrender.

Only ground troops can drive IS from its strongholds. But America’s Gulf Arab allies and Jordan will not contribute troops if Washington does not deploy its own, which it insists it will not. Moreover, even if the administration were to decide in favor of deploying "boots on the ground," it would have to do so in large enough numbers to defeat a foe whose own fighting forces continue to swell with new recruits. That is not likely to happen.

Instead Washington will have to continue to rely on the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Army, and, in Syria, moderate opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Apart from the Kurds, however, these other forces will be no match for IS as their miserable record until now clearly attests. No doubt the administration will argue that training will stiffen the spine of the Iraqi Army and enable the FSA to push back IS. But the time has come to admit that something is wrong with the way America trains foreign forces. Sometimes they prevail on the battlefield, but too often they don’t.

The Iraqi Army could not collapse quickly enough in the face of the Islamic State onslaught, despite a decade of training by the American military. The Afghan Army, which Americans have been training for an even longer period has barely held its own against the Taliban. The Yemeni Army has just evaporated before advancing Houthi forces. And the Free Syrian Army, which only recently has been receiving American military tutelage, is faring no better, whether against Assad’s forces, al-Nusra, or IS.

The only force that has performed well against IS has been the Peshmerga. It has done so without the benefit of American training, or, until the past few weeks, modern American equipment. Indeed, for nearly two decades Washington stiff-armed Kurdish requests for equipment, forcing the Peshmerga to fight with vintage 1980s and 1990s weapons. Even now, Washington insists on undermining Kurdish autonomy by insisting on a quixotic "One Iraq" policy that seeks prevent the Kurds from financing themselves through oil sales.

The Obama administration will not destroy IS. Nor will it defeat the extremists. It can only contain them, until they implode, or face rebellion from a population that no longer will tolerate Islamic tyranny. Air strikes can help contain IS, but they must be accompanied by expanded support for those forces that can truly keep it at bay notably those of Jordan, the Kurdish Regional Government, and the Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar, which continues to play the double game of financing IS while joining the anti-IS coalition). The Iraqi Army is another matter, however, as is the Free Syrian Army. Both are not really armies at all.

It is true that even the Kurds will not fight beyond their historic homelands, but, like the Jordanians, they will stop any IS advance in their direction. For that reason, Washington should rethink its policy toward Kurdistan and the Kurdish Regional Government. It should abandon its "One Iraq" policy in favor of support for greater Kurdish autonomy, namely financial autonomy, or even for independence, should the Kurds seek it. The reality is that there is no "one Iraq," and perhaps there never really was one.

As for Syria, beyond bombing IS targets, Washington should refrain from intervening in what is at least a five way war between the Assad regime, IS, al-Nusra, the Syrian Kurds, and the Free Syrians. Syria, like Iraq, no longer is a unitary state. It would best serve the United States to let the Syrian civil war play itself out if, as is likely, it will result in a weakened Assad and an equally weak radical opposition.

The administration, like all its predecessors that have taken the nation to war, seeks an unambiguous outcome. The Middle East has long been mired in ambiguity, and is unlikely to change any time soon. Better that Washington redefine its strategy as one of containment, and limit itself to an outcome that is obtainable rather than to one that on its surface is more appealing but in reality will never come to pass.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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