ISIS and US Intervention: doing more with less

-Sebastien Roblin

For decades, John McCain has been one of the most consistent and ardent supporters of the notion that U.S. military intervention is a moral and strategic imperative in the global crises of the day.  In his recent editorial in the New York Times (co-authored by Lindsay Graham) he calls for a wider, more forceful U.S. military intervention to counter the menace of ISIS as it conquers territory in both Syria and Iraq with alarming speed.  McCain, to his credit, offers some specific policies that would further this objective, but his overall argument has both flawed premises and assumptions: many of the policies he suggests are already being carried out by the Obama administration, while his vaguer call for more “urgent” effort assumes that wider and more hasty application of force will necessarily yield greater long-term results.

Obama’s confession that he “doesn’t have a strategy yet” regarding ISIS forces in Syria may be worthy of critique as an exercise in public-relations, but the substance of that statement should not strictly occasion reproach.  Not all problems have solutions that are immediately obvious—and unthinkable though this may be to some, some problems may have no useful solution achievable by the United States and its military.  When McCain proposes that the United States expand its intervention against ISIS to target its forces in Syria, he is arguing in favor of attacking an army that opposed a government McCain himself argued last year we should have bombed and overthrown.  The expansion of ISIS into Iraq has likewise seen the military forces of the United States and Iran—another country McCain has advocated bombing in the past—fighting on the same side.  This paradoxical moral and political terrain is not something we can blithely ignore and dismiss in a rush to knock out ISIS in Syria as villain du jour.  McCain’s casual observation that “political transition” is required in Syria ignores how very unfavorable just about any realistically imaginable outcome of the Syrian conflicts looks today.

McCain invokes the threat of domestic terrorism, that old 9/11 era bogeyman, to justify intervention, but precisely how many successful terrorist attacks have been carried out on American soil organized by foreign groups since 9/11? That would be 0.  (And no, individual US citizens acting independently do not count as “foreign terrorist organizations.”) If judged in terms of actual domestic casualties, school shootings, automobile accidents, and swimming pool safety are more worthy of the multiple billions of dollars necessary to fight ISIS.  ISIS itself has a more regionally-oriented agenda than Al Qaeda, and if McCain or anyone else were genuinely fearful of ISIS launching terrorist attacks on US soil, it would probably have sufficed not to have made them our enemy.
Yet, undeniably, ISIS’s depredations in Iraq present a more compelling moral argument for intervention than other causes have in the past.  Since 1999, the United States has justified attacking relatively passive tyrants (Iraq and Libya), and states responsible for war crimes in the pursuit of military objectives (Syria), but ISIS has explicitly made ethnic and religious cleansing part of its doctrine, seeking to eradicate ethnic minorities and massacring opposing religious-sects throughout Iraq through a policy of “convert, leave, or die.”  This is an organization that Al Qaeda disowned because of its excessive violence against civilians.  Furthermore, ISIS is coming close to knocking over a government the United States invested many billions of dollars and thousands of lives propping up.


But it is that very tortured history that complicates any attempt to return there.  U.S. regular forces were no longer in Iraq because the Iraqi government was unwilling to accept the legal immunity (Status of Forces agreement) the U.S. required to maintain its troops there.  Many of the Sunni minority of Northern Iraq supported ISIS’s advance because the Iraqi central government is both corrupt and relentlessly sectarianin favor of the Shia majority, despite the U.S.’s efforts during its years of influence to promote centrist, non-sectarian candidates and policies.  The U.S. did not draw the borders that put together the diverse and fractious ethno-religious groups that inhabit Iraq today, but it is responsible for smashing apart the fragile secular political order that Saddam had brutally instituted there, replacing his despotism with a state of perpetual inter-communal war far more sanguinary than the old regime.

So what can the United States contribute to this crisis?  McCain calls for observers and advisers on the ground to train and assist the Iraqi Army, and more military aid.  Yet the advisers are already there, (over 900 US personnel on the ground in both central and Northern Iraq), and extensive military aid is well on its way—never mind that all of the Iraqi army’s heavy ordinance in tanks and artillery went unused and abandoned in the face of the ISIS insurgents’ pick-up truck mounted attack on Mosul in June.  Furthermore, following a period of deliberation, military aid has begun to flow now to the Kurdish Peshmerga, the only force to effectively resist ISIS’s advance on the ground.  Never mind the complicated political issues support for the independence-minded Kurds must entail in the long run.  And the United States did begin providing weapons and training to moderate factions of the Syrian war—never mind that those factions are now the weakest in the three-way conflict also involving the Syrian state and radical Islamists.

McCain also calls for reforming Iraq’s political leadership, but the U.S. has argued consistently for non-sectarian political reform and has not spared any opportunities to lay blame upon former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki for his political failings—which in combination with domestic political pressure, led to his relinquishment of power on August 14th. 

Ultimately, though, McCain’s emphasis lies, as always, on an increased military effort; but U.S. air power has already made over 100 strikes against ISIS forces, in addition to providing extensive supports in logistics, intelligence gathering, and electronic warfare (including missions directed against ISIS forces in Syrian territory).  What McCain really wants is a larger-scale air campaign such as those during the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.  Air power is indeed the United States strongest military asset, and one which is relatively safe from enemy retaliation when compared to boots on the ground.  But air power is also a very blunt instrument, effective at destroying large, obvious targets such as tanks and military installations (such as Iraq’s conventional army in the Gulf War of 1991), but very difficult to use against lightly-armed insurgents that can blend in with the civilian population.

The morally defensible and tactically effective way to use airpower is against targets of opportunity identified by intelligence assets or forward observers on the ground (unless you don’t mind wasting innocent civilian lives while achieving little military effect, a trade off which has a track record of moral and strategic failure).  And that is exactly what the U.S. military is already engaged in doing: U.S. air strikes have been directed to destroy artillery shelling ethnic refugee camps, defend Kurdish towns from their attackers, knock out captured Iraqi tanks, and provide air cover for Iraqi forces (such as for the recent recapture of the Mosul dam).  Undoubtedly, small teams of U.S. troops were deployed on the ground to coordinate several of these strikes, just as McCain has called for.

But the capture and defense of key cities and infrastructure by ground forces is the bottom line in this conflict.  The Iraqi army demonstrated woefully poor moral in its failure to defend Mosul, while the better-motivated Kurds are too few in number to resist ISIS alone.  McCain suggests that we can repeat the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but even that involved thousands of US troops (a number which grew enormously over time), and to send them again in large numbers for an indefinite period of time to Iraq to support a government that has proven incapable of holding on to its own territory despite overwhelming numerical and material superiority is an option that lacks both political and strategic sense.   It is the Iraqi army, the Iraqi political class, that must evolve to face the situation—their failure is not one that logistics and air strikes (both of which are being readily supplied by the U.S. and Iran) can solve alone. 


So, it turns out the United States is already quietly doing quite a bit to oppose ISIS, McCain’s claims to the contrary, and while these actions may lack the grandiose strategic alliances, grandstanding publicity, and massive aerial bombing campaigns of the Bush years, that may be just as well.  Already, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed up US and Iranian logistics and firepower, have achieved some modest victories in August, relieving the besieged town of Amerli and recapturing the Mosul dam–victories achieved at a fraction of the cost of the US resources that a wide scale intervention would entail.

The United States’ own strategic and moral imperatives are far from clear as regards the complicated relationship between Syria, Iraq, Iran, ISIS, and moderate Syrian rebel groups, and ultimately the United States’ interests are far better served (and realistically, can only be achieved) by local actors of the region, both military and political, rather than through some new crusade that bears America’s signature upon it.  By applying both force and diplomacy in a restrained and judicious manner, the United States is not only reducing its own responsibility for the bloody and byzantine sectarian rivalries of the Middle East, (U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs having long been the chief motivator of anti-Western terrorism) but may well be doing a better job of supporting its allies in the region.

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