Now that the Western World has been awakened to the international threat of ISIS and has seemingly mobilized at least some of its potent war resources to contain the group, maybe we can assume that America and her military allies have taken the initial first steps needed to contain and ultimately defeat the violent Islamist scourge. Executing precision air strikes against the group’s militia forces is an important first step in hindering the group’s military advance across Iraq and Syria but it is just one tactical answer to the greater problem at-large. By no means should it be considered the wholesale remedy to the tantalizing problem that still threatens the region. Within the framework of a proper, multiple arms military operation, precision air-strikes are just one facet of the greater strategic undertaking and very rarely is it effective without ‘boots on the ground’.
Recently the Obama Administration divulged their first, comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS on the battlefield yet limited the military’s commitment to the endeavor strictly to the operational use of its airpower, seemingly as the main ingredient of a multi-national and multi-faceted, military undertaking. The White House envisages American airpower to be used solely as the crucial battering ram to break apart the cohesion of the group’s ground advance while an assortment of suspect, Kurdish and Sunni militias and Iraqi regular army units descend upon the fragmented remnants in ancillary ops that would isolate and destroy the group piecemeal. Militarily speaking, the plan has its merits but does the White House honestly believe that the critical ground phase of the operation can be entrusted to a hodgepodge of suspicious allied militias with questionable motives and allegiances? Maybe the White House can, but should the whole Western World be comfortable with the defense of its whole geo-political position in the free world being allocated to a collection of groups that have more in common with the enemy than they do with the west?
The dilemma here is basically twofold. Either the White House fails to acknowledge the strategic importance that ground troops will have in engendering the ultimate success of the mission or they are simply content on temporarily downplaying the significance of a ground force commitment in order to pass that responsibility off to the next administration in the White House. Therefore the White House can spend the next two years politically posturing with its dubious military allies for a more inclusive role in the fight against ISIS, while extolling the virtuousness of its air campaign and the brave sacrifice of its overburdened pilot fraternity. Ultimately this is meant to showcase the administration’s obligation toward its military commitments overseas, while safeguarding the president’s promise not to deploy American troops on the ground. Of course, what the American people will get is another front row seat in the nightly news shows of vividly accurate precision bombing strikes, followed by increasing alerts in the Homeland Security’s color-coded, terrorist threat index, as an undeterred ISIS branches out far beyond the borders of its self-declared caliphate in the Levant.
Fortunately the White House has recognized the fact that air power alone cannot defeat ISIS, thus it has made an appreciable step forward in acknowledging what it will take militarily to bring a comprehensive plan to fruition. However this is where the administration diverges from sound, operational orthodoxy in the military sphere and I’m beginning to detect a hazardous, political disregard for the strategic military judgment of the president’s advisers in the Pentagon as the overarching reason for this dangerous disconnect. Fundamental to these disparities is the preoccupation the president seemingly has in revisiting the mistakes of the last administration’s hasty, military involvement in Iraq. He seems overly-determined in garnering a political consensus among the relevant national interests affected by the emergence of ISIS. But in kowtowing to a strictly political solution through diplomatic channels, the administration has deferred the strategic threat to the nation’s national interests for the sake of political expediency. Wherein the earlier threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction proved premature and later patently false, the current threat of ISIS is quite real and clearly amplified. Thus American national interests palpably trump the need for prolonged international diplomacy.
In the interests of purely American national security, the Obama Administration cannot logically profess to be committed to a policy of national defense against terrorism while handcuffing its military with unnecessary restraints, such as forbidding it from committing ground troops to potential trouble spots. If there was ever one manifest example of a situation that required far more than the application of American airpower alone, it is the threat that ISIS now presents in Iraq and along the Turkish-Syrian border. So why is the Obama Administration obsessed with committing to a military policy that completely erases the most viable military option available and the one tactical deterrent that can unmistakably halt the group’s stunning progression in the field? American airpower can decisively serve to impede the group’s operational mobility and can probably erode its main firepower and support bases but it won’t be able to positively contain its command and control infrastructure nor can it extinguish its collective will to fight. Those are outcomes that only an appropriate, ground force contingent can elicit through its successful engagement with the enemy on the field of battle. In this case it might take a multitude of battles to reach the preferred outcome nevertheless these are battles that will have to be fought and these fights can only take place with the deployment of combat ground troops. This fact cannot be overlooked or mitigated.
The Obama Administration has structured its anti-ISIS strategy to empower various Kurdish militias and Sunni tribal factions to do the bulk of the ground fighting while American military advisers and Special Forces operatives coordinate the overhead fire support and intelligence gathering missions. This will entail a comprehensive rearmament program to build up the strength of these dubious, makeshift militias. It will also take time and lots and lots of money. But money and arms alone will not induce these groups to fight nor will it keep their allegiance intact for the full duration of the conflict. History has already shown how prevalent tribal and religious animosities can be in determining friend from foe, at any given time when such groups are fused together. This holds especially true for the toxic stew of rebel groups fighting the Bashir Assad-led government in Syria. We’re talking about a merger that can’t be simply thrown together on a whim. Thus in addition to the rearmament of the various groups, their combat efficiency in battle will require lots and lots of training and inter-service coordination. This of course takes a lot of time; time which an effective operational plan cannot always wait for. Naturally this can only leave one to conclude that the Obama Administration is indeed inclined to simply pass on the major military decision-making to the next incumbent in the Oval Office.
The only major, conventional military force in the region with the resources to make an immediate impact on the war with ISIS is the Iraqi Army yet it has already forfeited the chance to take the strategic initiative on its own. In its initial major engagements with the Islamist militia it proved a shameful failure by turning heal and fleeing the battlefield, after hastily abandoning its state-of-the-art, American-provided, military equipment. This begs the question whether it will ever be able to adequately fight with even American airpower flying in tactical support. Are we to believe that simply giving the Iraqi Army millions of dollars’ worth of new military equipment will lead them to fight any better than they did before? Again, retraining and rejuvenating the Iraqi Army will continue to take a great deal of time and even then a crash-course in tactical proficiency is not a guarantee that the Iraqis’ will be up to the challenge. The political challenges intrinsic in Iraq’s Sunni-Shia feud make it nearly impossible to predict the long-term development of the Iraqi Army and right now they are far, far away from reaching a level of combat efficiency deemed strong enough to confront ISIS on an even battlefield, let alone being trustworthy enough to take the field alongside American military advisers.
Considering that it is probably impossible to get the otherwise friendly, American-allied governments in Turkey or Jordan to commit sizeable ground troops to assist in the take-down of ISIS, this leaves the immediate insertion of American combat ground troops as the only alternative available to comprehensively halt the threat of the radical Islamic militia. It is only through the prompt and inalienable presence of reliable and trustworthy American combat ‘boots on the ground’ that the USA can begin to undertake a comprehensive, war-winning strategy to defeat ISIS. With the intervention of American ground troops into the equation, America’s airpower efficiency becomes magnified ten-fold and the enemy force instantly digresses from being the hunter to the prey. Once ISIS has taken to flight, America’s smaller allied militias like the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army can be given the task of delivering the coup de grace to the mortally wounded enemy. It might also be the only way to get the Iraqi Army to stand and fight, which would probably go a long way in preventing a revival of the militia’s core components after the exit of American ground troops from the field. It might also be safe to say that with the intervention of strong American ground forces to the region, ISIS’s strength could be effectively halved within the first two-to-three months of combat operations, which is probably a far quicker pace than the current strategy the White House is wedded to.
Like most American president’s that have undertaken military interventions, the current administration’s apprehension to committing combat forces on the ground stems from an inability to anticipate a clear exit strategy after their main mission has been accomplished. It is this particular dilemma that most inhibits the political leadership from drawing the same conclusions as the military experts. President Obama’s seemingly greatest fear in introducing combat ground troops in Iraq is his incapacity to implement a proper exit strategy before his term in office ends. The pertinacity of carrying over America’s military commitments from one president to another does not sit well with the American people nor does it offer a particularly attractive political legacy in a historical perspective. Therefore he seems content in leaving the decision to commit ground forces to his successor. Although his proclamation of a comprehensive, long-range strategy to defeat ISIS may shield him from further responsibility if his successor chooses to amend the policy, it does nothing to change the status quo in Iraq that will most assuredly remain with America devoted solely to a policy of airpower to neutralize ISIS.
The question inevitably boils down to how long America has to deal with ISIS. Airpower alone is a component of a long-range strategy. It is a form of containment that offers the president legitimacy in the eyes of his detractors for doing something in the short-term until a broader coalition of forces can be assembled to mitigate America’s military commitment. It cannot destroy ISIS and although it might weaken it, the threat will continue to pose a formidable challenge to American interests if the group decides to undertake different avenues to avenge its strongest, mortal enemy. But by assuming the immediate solution in confronting the problem now—by undertaking a coordinated, ground attack and air campaign—America has a distinct opportunity to shatter ISIS in the field before it can shrink back to the one-dimensional and dispersed guerrilla unit it originally was. Right now the hastily expanding network of conventional military assets that ISIS has assembled and spread haphazardly throughout Northern Syria and Western Iraq is at its most militarily vulnerable state since it resolved to undertake its advance through Iraq. Its overstretched logistics capacity and thin defensive veneer poses a tempting target for any conventional military force with the tactical means to isolate and attack it. This can only be achieved through the inauguration of a multi-faceted, multiple arms, military operation on a less than grand scale but large enough to sustain ground and air assets in Iraq until the threat has dissipated. Certainly it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume that two American divisions—one airborne and one Marine—along with a brigade-sized force of Special Operations units would not be inappropriate for the tasks at hand.
America cannot abandon its right to unilaterally assume preemptive measures to combat its gravest threats nor should it bow to the sovereignty of failing states that haven’t the gumption to challenge these radical groups in their midst, which seek to undermine the legitimacy of established international order. This is a tool America can never shrink from using if it wants to continue to uphold the democratic principles intrinsic to the values of the leader of the free world. If America is to continue on in this supreme leadership position it must take the lead in defending democracy’s most benevolent institutions from all external threats, even if the rest of the democratic world fails to recognize the threat or pretends it’s just not there. It shouldn’t have to resort to meaningless political posturing and military half-measures to tackle its most contentious, external problems. ISIS is a threat that poses a problem here and now. It is a military problem that warrants a military response. This would be the wrong time and place to inhibit the military’s freedom-of-maneuver by adhering to an ill-conceived notion that purportedly has only the interests and safety of the American soldier at hand. If the USA wants to win the war against ISIS it must commit to putting ‘boots on the ground’.