The sudden and rapid advance by ISIS fighters across Northern Iraq has generated much discussion of American decisions and actions — what should we do? What actions should we take? However, our decisions and actions must be based on the desired effect. Specifically, how will our actions affect ISIS capabilities and the situation in Iraq? While it is universally accepted that there are no ‘good’ options or ‘easy’ decisions in this Iraq crisis, there are, however, wrong responses which will produce negligible or, even worse, negative effects.
The first decision that we have made, the deployment of the Carrier Battle Group, was an obvious and painless action. After all, this has been our standard response to global crisis for decades. However, while making us feel good that we are ‘sending a message,’ and ‘reassuring our allies,’ this action is largely irrelevant to the situation in Iraq. While this appears to be an effective response, in this case it is tantamount to sending a 20th century weapon to a 21st century fight. It will have no effect on the ISIS leaders in Syria, Mosul and outside of Baghdad; they simply do not care.
We have now acted and committed 300 American advisors with the mission, described by the President, “to assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.” However, time accrues to the benefit of ISIS. While we “assess” they maintain the momentum, they grow stronger, their hold on the population intensifies. This assessment must somehow lead to a meaningful effect: rapidly enabling Iraqi Security Forces to reverse the gains and take decisive action to defeat ISIS.
As we have learned in the last decade of fighting insurgents, they obviate our superior firepower by dispersing into small, highly mobile targets and by living and operating among the population. And we have also learned that the decisive way to defeat an insurgency is to attack its entire network: its leaders, financiers, suppliers and key operators. We can hope that this is what the President meant when he said “we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action.” However, generating targetable intelligence to attack the network requires a deep understanding of the network, which is only gained through a robust and effective intelligence effort over time. This requires an investment of personnel and technical capabilities before striking these targets.
In the absence of this actionable intelligence, airstrikes attacking isolated and tactical targets of ISIS fighters and vehicles may seem like the right action to degrade their capabilities. However, this action will be relatively ineffective in producing the desired effect of seriously degrading the ISIS network. Also, to produce effective airstrikes, especially against an enemy among the population, one needs to have air controllers on the ground to call-in precise strikes and to control the effects. The Iraqis do not possess the capability to serve in this role. So, even if we immediately deployed the controllers for airstrikes, you cannot airstrike your way out of an insurgency. And no amount of isolated airstrikes will turn the current tactical situation in Iraq and produce decisive effects.
The other big idea that has been discussed is cooperation with Iran. This is a strategically bad idea. Set aside that Iran is the leading state sponsor of terror, and ignore the blood on their hands of our soldiers killed in Iraq by their surrogates and proxies. Even the discussion of cooperating with Iran is counterproductive. ISIS thrives because it can operate within the Sunni population and tribes. The Sunni population in Iraq is deeply mistrustful of the Shia-led Baghdad government and its security forces. These disaffected Sunnis see a Baghdad regime that is dominated by Shia and controlled by Tehran. Our very public discussion of cooperation with Iran further validates this Sunni view. If the strategic aim in this crisis is to separate the Sunni population from the ISIS fighters, any perceived cooperation with Iran would produce the opposite effect.
Make no mistake, this turn of events on the ground in Iraq was a strategic surprise in Baghdad and Washington and has resulted in scrambling by our intelligence and policy communities to take some sort of action. But, moving forward, we must focus on meaningful effects and not rush to take the wrong action.
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Lieutenant General (Retired) Michael Barbero was a career infantry officer who retired in 2013. While on active duty, he served over 46 months in Iraq over 3 separate tours of duty, and has regularly visited Iraq over the past year.
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