Slowly, like a leaky faucet, U.S. and coalition forces are returning to Iraq. There is no reason to believe that the Obama Administration’s decision to deploy another 450 soldiers will be the end. Nor is there any reason to believe that the U.S. will be able to avoid some direct involvement in combat. Indigenous forces alone will not be able to drive ISIS from Iraq. The Iraqi Shias are too weak, the Kurdish underequipped and Iranian-backed militias and Quds forces unacceptable. The air campaign is slowing ISIS’s progress but cannot by itself, defeat it. In fact the majority of strike aircraft return to base without dropping a single bomb. In the absence of a strategy for defeating ISIS, all we can expect from the White House is the steady drip, drip, drip of additional deployments, expanded airstrikes and the occasional Special Operations raid. At least, that is until some external event such as another beheading forces the President’s hand.
Critics of the current non-strategy, most notably Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have called for a more robust U.S. response to ISIS’s advances. In particular, they have proposed embedding U.S. Special Forces and advisors directly in Iraqi units, providing arms directly to Kurdish forces, intensifying efforts to recruit anti-ISIS Sunnis and expanding air operations in Syria. Senators McCain and Graham have gone even farther, rightly arguing that defeating ISIS will require taking them on in Syria and hence actively pursuing the overthrow of the Assad regime in order to end that country’s civil war. It is increasingly evident that the question of a strategy for defeating ISIS will be a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Unfortunately, this debate will not focus on the central strategic question which is not how to drive ISIS out of Iraq or even how to defeat it in Syria. The central strategic question is what do we do the day after ISIS is defeated? How do we return Iraq or, even more challenging, Syria to stability? Unless we have figured out an answer to the “day after” problem, sending more forces to Iraq is an exercise in futility.
Do we simply assume that Iraq will return to a peaceful, multi-ethnic, multi-religion democracy? Really? It should be clear to any reasonable observer that Iraq no longer exists as a state. How will it be reconstituted? If the U.S. and its partners arm the Kurds and organize a Sunni army in Anbar will these groups willingly disarm and return to minority status in the Iraqi state? This time do we intend to stay until a functioning democracy takes hold? I don’t think so. So do we repeat this scenario for a third time, ten or twenty years hence?
What about Syria? If ISIS is to be defeated, we need to liberate Syria as well as Iraq from its control. But who will govern Syria? Neither we nor our putative Syrian moderate allies can accept a return to power of the Assad regime. This means helping to put in power a Sunni-dominated regime with all the uncertainty that creates for the significant minority populations.
Then there is Iran. The regime in Teheran already controls the trump Shia state in Iraq. A Sunni mini-state and a Kurdish nation are unlikely to be able to stop Iran’s efforts to dominate the region. The answer may lie in welding the Sunni portion of Iraq to a Sunni-dominated Syria. This new “nation” could act as a bulwark against Iran.
Admittedly, none of these outcomes appear feasible. Thus, we are left to consider the idea that ISIS will not be defeated, at least in Syria. This means that the U.S. needs to consider an aggressive containment strategy, one that would draw a red line around Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These states would have to be protected even at the cost of deploying U.S. forces in order to defend them.
Congress is about to debate a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force. In doing so it needs to focus on more than just U.S. troop levels, arms for local allies and rules of engagement. The debate needs to focus on the fundamental strategic question; what is our plan for the day after we defeat ISIS? In 2003, the Bush Administration had no such plan. We cannot afford to make this mistake again.
Find Archived Articles: