The Inherent Fallacy of Believing We Can Beat the Islamic State Without U.S. Ground Troops
No one — not Obama, Clinton, Trump, or Cruz — will dare to admit the obvious: We’re going to need to put boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of 217 more troops to Iraq, as part of the fight against the Islamic State. As Secretary of Defense Ash Carter explained: “This will put Americans closer to the action.” Washington will also send Apache helicopters to Iraqi forces and pay $415 million in salaries for Kurdish troops and other “military needs” in the runup to retaking Mosul.
If you think this counts as getting tough in the fight against radical jihadis who have unsettled the Middle East and brought violence to the heart of Europe, you’re deluding yourself. Obama’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State is half-measures, at best: contributing U.S. military force at the margins of efforts by those most directly affected with loss of territory. The president prides himself on a minimalist approach, doing just about as much for Iraqi forces or the Syrian rebels as they could do for themselves. It amounts to an argument that he is preventing the moral hazard of other countries relying on the United States for their security. But that approach treats as costless two very important elements in fighting the Islamic State: confidence and time.
One of the emptiest canards in warfare is “there is no military solution.” Unless you fight to complete extermination, war always involves convincing your adversary to stop fighting. That is, to cede their political goals rather than continue using military force to attain them. Usually, that requires doing some fighting. Of course, adversaries tend not to give up if they think they’re winning or could win — which is why soldiers like the Powell Doctrine of committing large forces in order to demonstrate your political will to win.
It’s also why Obama’s incremental commitment of small numbers of troops — 300 advisors here, a specialized targeting team there — is so ineffective. It conveys the limits of Washington’s willingness to fight. The Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei all understand those limits and are acting accordingly. America’s allies get the message now, too, especially after the president wrote off Iraq and fought the war in Afghanistan halfheartedly. They will not step forward and commit the ground troops necessitated by Obama’s approach because they lack the confidence that Washington will see this difficult fight through.
A strategy suited to its purpose connects achievable political aims with compelling means and employs them in ways that confront the enemy with cascading problems. Obama’s approach of gradual escalation allows the enemy to adjust its activities to each minor increase in our capability. The way to successfully fight wars is to limit your political objectives and provide decisive military resources to deliver them. Instead, the administration seeks ambitious, if not outright implausible, political aims (hey, Assad: step down!), marrying them to a halfhearted commitment of air power that shows few signs of limiting the Islamic State’s gains, not to mention those of the Assad regime.
Obama is not alone in magical thinking about the war against the Islamic State, though: Politicians from both Democratic and Republican parties are deceiving themselves and the American electorate by pretending we can defeat the Islamic State without putting significant numbers of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State will not last long against a top-notch military. Yet none of the Republican presidential candidates dares to differ substantively from Hillary Clinton’s statement this week that we must defeat the Islamic State, but not with American boots — the Iraq War showed we cannot send troops to the Middle East. Instead, Ted Cruz wants to carpet bomb, while Donald Trump wants to kill their families and go after the oil. They are all guilty of what generals are often accused of: fighting the last war.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration claims it’s picking off Islamic State leaders, but, to use national security and intelligence analyst Phil Walter’s analogy, that is mopping up the floor instead of turning off the faucet. The Islamic State is still in control of significant territory, still drawing thousands of recruits because it is the only force ostensibly protecting Sunni Arabs, and still boasting that it is holding its own against the world’s strongest military. Many of those recruits are now drawn from allied countries and pose a direct threat to the United States and Europe.
Look, I get it: Americans are tired and wary of another war in the Middle East. Those who oppose committing ground troops beyond the 5,000 or so U.S. forces Obama already has operating against the Islamic State are hesitant about casualties. They’re worried about mission creep. So let’s not creep in. If this president or the next really wants to defeat the Islamic State, half-measures won’t do it. It’s going to require some hard choices. But we all prefer to accept casualties in our military, among the men and women who volunteer for combat and are trained for it, instead of in our civilian population at metro stations and airports.
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