Destroying the Islamic State – bombs, boots or both?

By Fred Benson

We must never again ask American forces to commit their lives to a cause that isn’t important enough to us to have to win.” – Caspar Weinberger


The seemingly unimpeded march of the Islamic State (IS) through Syria and Iraq further tests the mettle of an American president who would like nothing more than to leave office with the nation at peace. The IS has gained control of large portions of Syria and Iraq in recent months while ruthlessly beheading Western journalists and local nonbelievers in pursuit of its goal of establishing an independent Islamic State in the region, known geographically as the Levant.

President Barack Obama’s unfortunate statement that he had not yet “developed a strategy for this situation,” coupled with the knife-wielding carnage frequently displayed on national television, triggered demands from both parties for a U.S. response to this march of terror. In response, President Obama boldly pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Anticipating that our combat-weary nation would look negatively at continuing a seemingly permanent state of war, he assured Americans that there would be no U.S. “boots on the ground.”

Shortly thereafter, U.S. and other coalition nations’ aircraft began bombing IS targets in Iraq and Syria. In recent days, the president has doubled the number of U.S. military advisors in Iraq to 3,000 and indicated that they would be working “closely” with Iraqi Army brigades. Assuming that “closely” is a geographical measurement, it will not be long before U.S. personnel are exposed to IS fire, and if history is to guide us, the pressure to expand our combat presence will grow.

To be successful, any strategy that would not include U.S. ground combat units in a campaign to destroy the IS would require effective involvement of similarly trained Iraqi and Syrian forces. There are, however, many reasons to conclude that neither nation may be capable of filling this critical role.

First, Iraqi military desertions in the face of advancing IS forces have reached startling proportions. In some units, the commanders fled the scene well before IS forces appeared over the horizon. In others, the leaders simply advised their troops to turn in their weapons and go home. It is to these same deserters that Iraq is now offering amnesty in an attempt to entice them to join either a reconstituted army or a newly-formed national guard organization designed to have troops defending their own home ground. Many of these troops have admitted that their sole reason for reenlisting was that they had run out of money. Large numbers of the deserters are Sunnis whose loyalty to a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is extremely questionable.

Second, a key element of Obama’s plan is the training and arming of a moderate Syrian force. The goal is to prepare 5,000 Syrian rebels a year to halt the advance of the IS in that country. The process of recruiting, vetting and training these forces has just begun, and there is no certainty that the desired outcome will be attained. Further, these rebels will be placed in defensive positions only to prevent further incursion by IS forces, hardly an appropriate military strategy to “defeat” the IS.

Taking all this together, it appears that the United States is once again committed to an outcome – defeating the IS – with neither a clear strategy nor a comprehensive plan to achieve that goal. To wit: we have become the air force of choice for both Syria, a country the U.S. came close to invading in 2013, and Iraq, where sectarian discrimination created the fertile ground on which the Islamic State is now able to operate with impunity. By extension, Russia and Iran must be extremely pleased that the U.S. is now aiding their close allies in Syria and Iraq. Most importantly, the United States has been drawn into another war that can be labeled a crusade against Muslims, thus giving terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State enormous recruiting and financial power. To be blunt, the IS welcomes the bombing.

Many analysts have concluded that the only answer to the Sunni-Shiite standoff is for Iraq to move quickly towards establishing a more inclusive government. If U.S. bombing can slow the IS tide and provide sufficient time for this reorganization to be accomplished, our presence in the air will be justified. If, however, Prime Minster Haidar al-Abadi holds to his predecessor’s discriminatory governance practices, a continuing sectarian war is inevitable. Introducing American ground troops into such a battle would be a great mistake. As in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the key lesson to keep in mind is that while U.S. military forces are expert in providing security in extremely challenging circumstances, their departure often signals a return to historic and unalterable sectarian conflict.


Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. [email protected]

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