Since the Paris attacks there have been an avalanche of pledges to destroy ISIS, to wage “pitiless” or “merciless” war against the world’s worst and most bloodthirsty terrorist organization. Don’t listen. These pledges are just so much noise — so much hot air — unless the pledge is accompanied by a plan to put American boots on the ground, in close combat against ISIS, in sufficient numbers to not just defeat the jihadists but impose Surge-scale losses on ISIS personnel and infrastructure.
Politicians won’t say this, because they won’t lead. Instead, they’ll offer plans for increased air strikes — or perhaps increased use of the special forces (as if mere invocation of SEAL Team Six indicates political toughness) — and always they’ll go back to the Kurds. Again and again, we here the same formula: Kurds plus special forces plus more air strikes equals victory.
Wrong. It’s not enough, and it’s especially not enough against ISIS, a jihadist force that aspires to take and hold territory. Even if we turned Ramadi into rubble, so long as jihadists still live there, still control the remnants, and still shake their fists at the sky, then to millions of potential jihadists they are defying the West. They are winning. Bombing a city to rubble and then bombing the rubble won’t defeat ISIS. Breaking its hold on the actual land it controls will.
The key to ISIS’s powerful psychological hold on the imagination of radical Muslims is its military success — its power. It is living its theology, waging war for Allah — and winning. Its offensives last summer and fall may have since stalled, but their spectacular victories — some gained even after the United States joined the fight — still resonate.
From the ISIS point of view, they haven’t just withstood the West, they’ve expanded, with franchises in Egypt, North Africa (including Libya), and Nigeria. They’ve also increased their striking power, showing that they’re capable of striking grievous blows against two great powers — Russia and France — in one month. Indeed, one reason I’m particularly worried about a strike at home is that a strike here would serve as the climax of ISIS’s most recent terror campaign, proving to the world that no one is beyond its reach.
To counter ISIS’s dramatic and public victories, we must deal it more dramatic and more public defeats. It has to lose the seats of its power, starting in Iraq. Fred and Kimberly Kagan — strategists who helped conceive of the Surge, al-Qaeda’s first defeat in Iraq — have done yeoman’s work outlining a comprehensive, detailed military plan for defeating ISIS, a plan that includes deploying American brigade combat teams. In response to the Paris attacks, the Kagans outlined a number of necessary actions. I want to highlight the first three as particularly critical.
First: “Take the gloves off against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Adjust the rules of engagement to accept the risk of collateral damage (civilian casualties), hit every ISIS target on our lists, and do as much damage as possible from the air quickly.” The point about the rules of engagement is absolutely vital. At present, our rules of engagement not only limit the number of targets we can engage, but they provide the enemy with known safe havens. Under the present rules of engagement, we could bomb Syria and Iraq for a decade and still not inflict sufficient losses on ISIS.
Second: “Put the necessary U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq to help the Iraqis retake Ramadi and Fallujah rapidly and prepare them to retake Mosul within six months.” This is the most important step. The Kagans seem to think we can accomplish this part of the mission with only 10,000 U.S. troops and no brigade combat teams. I’m skeptical that our Iraqi allies — even with American special forces, artillery, and aviation support — can do the job. While I’m happy to be wrong, we should deploy troops who can react with decisive force if and when the offensive stalls. Moreover, it’s highly likely we could do so with French (and perhaps British) support. A French brigade could make a decisive impact on the battlefield.
Third: “Don’t over-rely on Kurdish forces for rapid, decisive operations beyond Kurdish ethnic boundaries.” This can’t be emphasized enough. Too many American policymakers are looking to the Kurds as saviors, as the ground force that will relieve American soldiers of the need to once again lay their lives on the line in the Middle East. But striking significantly beyond Kurdish regions is bad for our strategy, and it’s bad for the Kurds. There would be few better ways to further inflame ethnic tensions (and increase ISIS’s recruitment) than to send brigades of Kurds into Sunni strongholds.
The combination of a devastating bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria and a decisive ground offensive in Iraq would inflict a crippling and humiliating defeat on ISIS. In all likelihood, it would also fatally undermine ISIS’s position in Syria. It is entirely possible that competing Syrian militias would quickly crush a severely weakened ISIS. Thus, victory in Iraq could be followed by a brief pause in ground operations to assess the risks and benefits of large-scale intervention in Syria.
But what to do about Russia and the Assad regime? It’s difficult to imagine an end to the Syrian civil war while the Assad regime remains, but one can imagine an end to ISIS without an end to Assad. The Kagans recommend aggressive action (though not direct military intervention) to topple the Assad regime and remove Russia from Syria, but the U.S. should be extremely wary of attempting to impose a political or military solution to the Syrian civil war. Russia is stepping into a quagmire. America should exercise extreme caution before doing the same.
Flexibility is key. It’s often said that no plan survives its first contact with the enemy, and that would no doubt be the case in a serious fight with ISIS. The mission is to utterly destroy ISIS. The method — including numbers of troops deployed and targets engaged — is variable.
But we cannot even begin to wage war effectively when our people are unwilling and our leaders are weak. Now is not the time for political caution, for telling people what they want to hear. Now is the time for leadership, for bold truth-telling. Sadly, while our warriors are willing, our leaders are weak, and the best strategies are meaningless when politicians are unwilling to commit. We’ve learned the wrong lessons from Iraq. The United States didn’t abandon a failing, unwinnable fight. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. We must never do so again.