Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently evaluated President Obama's ISIS strategy by explaining, "They're not going to be able to be successful against Isis strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the [Kurdish] Peshmerga... So there will be boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy." In addition to Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey explained that if the president's current strategy fails, then "I would go back to the president and make the recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces." Therefore, in addition to the quagmire in the Middle East, there's a quagmire revolving around the notion that arming Syrian rebels, airstrikes, and sending 1,600 military advisers (coordinating the growing U.S. military footprint inside Iraq) will destroy a terrorist group entrenched in both Syria and Iraq. There are five "dirty little secrets" about President Obama's ISIS strategy that many Americans might not be aware of, especially when hearing the statement, "I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq."
1. President Obama, like many presidents before him, is lying by omission. If airstrikes don't work and ISIS conquers Bagdad, will he still keep his promise of never sending American troops back to Iraq? Of course not.
Unlike Secretary Gates or General Dempsey, President Obama never seems to address the possibility of his current strategy failing to destroy ISIS. LBJ sought "no wider war" but we know how that turned out. President Bush declared, "We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail" and we're still in Iraq over a decade later. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry can make a million assurances of never sending American ground troops back to Iraq, but these promises contradict the statements of Secretary Gates, General Dempsey, and others. General Daniel Bolger has an upcoming book titled, Why We Lost, and illustrates that in both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, "This enemy wasn't amenable to the type of war we're good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo." Even former British PM Tony Blair has explained that a fighting force "with a willingness to take casualties in carrying the fight through to the end" is needed to defeat this terrorist group, and that ground troops are a reality if ISIS is to be destroyed. Finally, retired Marine General James Conway is a little more direct than Blair, Dempsey, Bolger and others when stating, "I don't think the president's plan has a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding."
So why is Obama continually saying one thing while his generals are saying another? The president, like all presidents, is waiting for the political capital needed to make the unpopular decision, and this is why he's promising never to send U.S. soldiers back to Iraq; even when generals, a former Defense Secretary and British PM, and others contradict his promises.
2. Obama's strategy is missing a key element of... strategy. We still don't know what to do with Syria. ISIS is not only entrenched in both Iraq and Syria, but can easily use Syria as a sanctuary even if defeated in Iraq.
The president highlighted his strategy for destroying ISIS in Syria by stating, "I don't want to put the cart before the horse... We don't have a strategy yet." White House Spokesman Josh Earnest explained the statement as, "The president was candid about the fact that the Pentagon is reviewing options military options that may be available to him." Well, at least he's being honest, although we should have already had a viable Syria strategy years ago. Furthermore, it doesn't make too much sense to place high hopes in a reactionary strategy that is seemingly only weeks in the making.
ISIS controls "crucial sections of Syria," and has already forced more than a million Iraqis from their homes. These wide swaths of land will make it difficult to "bomb" them out of territory they control. The Atlantic explains the vast areas in both Iraq and Syria governed by ISIS in the following manner:
ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria tends to be described as "swaths." The estimated size of these swaths, which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in June, varies widely in reports, from 12,000 square miles--"an area the size of Belgium," per The Wall Street Journal--to 35,000 square miles, or "an area the size of Jordan," as George Packer wrote this week in The New Yorker.
Therefore, let's assume President Obama succeeds in removing ISIS from only the Iraqi regions of a territory within the range of 12,000 to 35,000 miles. Let's also assume the president actually knows the correct amount of territory actually controlled by ISIS. If we indeed send U.S ground troops to Iraq, they certainly won't be invading Syria, so what happens when ISIS is defeated in Iraq (something that might not happen as soon as we like) and regroups in Syria? More alarmingly, what happens if the Syrian rebels aren't able to both overthrow Assad and defeat ISIS? Even if ISIS is defeated in Iraq, it will still survive in Syria for the foreseeable future.
3. ISIS used to be al Qaeda in Iraq and represents a new evolution to the Sunni-Shia conflict that erupted after the fall of Saddam.
According to Vox, ISIS used to be a familiar enemy:
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) used to have a different name: al Qaeda in Iraq.
US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated al Qaeda in Iraq during the post-2006 "surge" -- but it didn't destroy them. The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, described the group in 2010 as down but "fundamentally the same." In 2011, the group rebooted. ISIS successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government and, slowly but surely, began rebuilding their strength.
Therefore, even though al Qaeda has separated (somewhat) from ISIS and ISIS also has its origins in Syria, America is still fighting the same enemy; only with a different name.
4. Prisons in Syria and Iraq fuel the growth of ISIS, terrorism, and extremism. Obama's strategy makes no mention of prison reform in Iraq or Syria.
A recent Newsweek article explains how Syrian prisons helped give birth to the extremism and religious fundamentalism found in ISIS and other groups allied with it primarily because prison conditions are reminiscent of "the middle ages." In both Iraq and Syria, prisoners are tortured, denied adequate food and water, and a great many end up becoming radicalized after their time in prison. Even if bombing campaigns manage to defeat ISIS, where will this defeated force end up? In the same prisons that many of them came from, to create new terrorists and further their old ideologies. Furthermore, a great amount of literature detailing the human rights abuses found within both Iraqi and Syrian prisons, exemplified by this Amnesty International report all highlight one of the biggest tools of recruitment for terrorists.
5. Obama has failed to mention the irregular warfare and counterinsurgency threats posed by ISIS, and how we'll address these threats without massive casualty figures on either American or Iraqi Forces.
President Obama's advisers should read a USA Today article titled, How the IED Changed the U.S Military and remember that, "More than half to two-thirds of Americans killed or wounded in combat in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been victims of IEDs... That's more than 3,100 dead and 33,000 wounded." Does Obama's strategy address the nighttime raids that will need to take place in order to weed out ISIS fighters from Mosul or Fallujah, or the threat of IED's when territory is retaken from ISIS? It does not, and most importantly, Obama's strategy is dependent upon too many variables succeeding and ignores that our counterinsurgency objectives were not achieved after the Iraq War.
These five reasons, as well as a number of other issues, explain why the U.S. should leave the fighting strictly to the enemies of ISIS living in Syria and Iraq. If after over a decade of American military intervention, we haven't destroyed "terror" in this region, it's highly doubtful that Obama's strategy, or any future military strategy, will end sectarian, political, and religious conflict in Iraq or Syria. No more Americans should risk their lives in a region with ancient rivalries that trump our perceived national interest of bringing democracy and "stability" to Iraq.