In Part I of this essay I laid out the path that led to the current situation in Iraq. I discussed the most commonly mentioned intervention approaches i.e. having partners fight ISIS and/or expanded use of airstrikes and how neither is likely to be successful. Most importantly, I explained that without a very clear and concise end state, the proposed approaches would just be efforts to convince the American public we are doing something for the sake of doing something or worse, creating even a more perilous situation. Saying we want to destroy ISIS isn’t an adequate end state. We need to articulate how we want to leave the region. Defeating ISIS for Iran to have a free hand in Iraq and Syria isn’t victory. It’s doing someone else’s work for them and setting the stage for a larger conflagration down the road.
The conclusion to my essay lays out what our national security interests are in the region, what we should do, why we won’t, what we will do and the precarious future which will likely lead to a large scale intervention or worse.
US National Security Interests
We have a national security interest in what’s happening in Iraq and how it will turn out. Besides confirming for the national conscience that the price we paid for Iraq was not in vain, ISIS’ destruction, Iraq’s stability and Iran’s position in the Middle East are important to US national security.
ISIS has stated and demonstrated its goal and outstanding ability to destabilize the Levant (roughly the region of the Middle East from Israel/Lebanon to Baghdad). It is in the process of destabilizing Lebanon, a borderline failed state, where ISIS’ flags grow in popularity, where ISIS has beheaded two Lebanese soldiers and capturied 30 others. Lebanese Christians are arming themselves. Jordan is swamped with Syrian refuges from the civil war. These nations along with Israel, Syria and parts of Iraq makes up the “Levant” in ISIS’ other name ISIL. The Huffington Post makes the case that ISIS wants to replace the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. Turkey, a member of NATO which we are bound by treaty to defend, is belatedly recognizing the same mistake Assad made in allowing itself to become a transit point for Islamic Radicals. Turkey is clamping down on the stream realizing its vulnerability.
ISIS ideology and goal is clear. ISIS wants to establish a hard line Islamist state, a Caliphate with Sharia as its law. ISIS’ Al Qaeda background, substantial military successes, organization and assets serves as a nexus for radical Islamic terror. It will continue to create an army of radical Islamic fighters including hundreds of jihadists with western passports. These jihadists will be able to blend into and return (either officially or surreptitiously) to their nations with military training, experience and a will to expand the caliphate. On CNN, Secretary of Defense Hagel stated more than 100 Americans have pledged loyalty to the Islamic Caliphate. Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Mike Rogers said on Meet the Press, “hundreds of Americans were affiliated with the group.”
Add to this concoction the eventual resources of ISIS as a nation state e.g. funding , weapons to include WMD acquisition/development, intelligence capabilities, sanctuary etc. and the threat becomes much clearer. ISIS also serves as a focal point for the radical Islamic movement. Concentrating Islamic Radicals is bad idea.
ISIS presents a clear danger to our allies in the region. ISIS success will create a flood of terrorists that will practice terrorism in our allies’ home nations and eventually us. They will destabilize international travel. Besides the threat of low level or even spectacular terror attacks, ISIS will threaten the lifeblood of civilization, that being the flow of oil with all of the economic destabilization that will bring. The US still imports a significant portion of its oil from the region but our allies are even more vulnerable. Fluctuating oil supplies also strengthen Russia’s position in the world and make it harder to impact their behavior. If one can’t accept the evidence I’ve presented maybe listening to Gen Martin Dempsey the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will help?
“ISIL is radical in its ideology, brutal in its tactics, and closed to all but those who adhere to their narrow and exclusive world view. Freedom is antithetical to ISIL and that’s what makes them dangerous. The US military considers ISIL an immediate threat initially to the region, our partners, and to the United States of America in the longer term. “
Today, the State Department warned all federal law enforcement organizations that ISIS has “demonstrated the capability to attempt attacks on US targets overseas with little-to-no warning.” The bulletin also reminded all US law enforcement to monitor social media that may expose a terrorist attack by homegrown terrorists. What it does not say is how ISIS inspires this madness.
What we should do
The US should clearly state the purpose of US intervention in the region is to destroy ISIS definitively and “assist” Iraq in establishing a new inclusive government that can defend itself from external and internal threats. Unsaid should be the roll back of Iranian influence in Iraqi governance as well as the intent that we develop a pro-western and stable Iraq so we can finally leave Iraq with a one way ticket. This is a comprehensive end state. How we accomplish the end state is strategy.
Our first priority should be fixing Iraq’s internal political situation. There can be no lasting accommodation and eventual stability in Iraq if Sunni and Kurdish interests are not represented and protected in Baghdad. We can offer to be the honest broker to protect Sunni/Kurdish participation in Iraqi governance. This undercuts Sunni support for ISIS in Iraq similar to our approach during the Iraqi surge. We can also send the message to the Shia that if they don’t want a joint solution we may be forced to support a partitioned Iraq. That is our ultimate ace in the hole, though with it comes a host of issues that I’ve mentioned before specifically Iran and Turkey don’t want an independent Kurdistan and Sunni Iraq doesn’t have many resources. A partitioned Iraq is a formula for more conflict.
Our next effort should be to eliminate Shia militias. According to the Pentagon half of the Iraqi army can’t be advised because they are heavily infiltrated by militia influenced by Iran. The militia is simultaneously a source of sectarian strife and Iranian influence. As a Craig Whiteside from WarontheRocks said: “The rebirth of the militias is a function of this latest crisis, and the opportunistic use of them by a panicked government has short-term security benefits but is catastrophic in the long term. The recent massacre allegedly conducted by the Shia militias in Diyala is an unsurprising consequence of allowing ideologically intense but untrained and undisciplined young men to undermine the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of lethal force. Furthermore, if this is what we get for acquiescing to Iranian Quds Force trainers on the ground, we need our money back. Quds leader Qasem Suleimani might be a genius at spreading mayhem, but the counterinsurgency skills of the group are suspect.”
Simultaneously at home the administration should passionately make the case to the American people of what a threat ISIS is and how the US cannot withdraw from the world nor show less commitment than those we ask to join us in the fight. ISIS doing beheading videos, talking about putting their knives at the necks of Americans and tweets with the ISIS flag with DC and Chicago as backdrops don’t make this exceptionally hard. That’s not even addressing the points I made previously.
We should employ & deploy whatever military power necessary to defeat ISIS. Sadly this should include a significant number of US troops. Employment of US troops first in the Kurdistan area would enhance their local security, Kurdish relations and reinforce that ace in the hole I mentioned before. It would also block further Iranian military deployments in the region. Meanwhile, SOF could pave the way for larger US troop employment bringing the other half of the Iraqi Army to standard. I would not use the US brigade stationed in Kuwait in the event that leverage may be necessary on the Shia south.
On the international front we should welcome as much participation as we can get from Europe and at a minimum have them pay out the nose for us to ensure their oil supply again. We should try to persuade Saudi & Jordanian military operations against ISIS along their respective borders and at every turn obstruct Iranian influence. This is no small task. Iranian influence and military aid has been poorly reported. Few realize that Iranian troops in the thousands are in Iraq today as well as Iranian pilots flying half a dozen newly returned SU25s and even Iranian tanks, APC and helicopters. Iran was also the first to send arms to the Kurds to fight ISIS. Iran’s tentacles are deep into Iraq and that bodes bad news in the future. Disturbingly none other than Qasem Soleimani the leader of the Iranian Quds force has been reported in the Iraqi city of Amerli which was recently freed from ISIS encirclement ironically by US airpower. The New York Times reported that the Special Forces assessment of Iraqi forces believed among those units loyal to “outgoing” Prime Minister Maliki are so dependent on Shiite militias and Iranian Quds Force advisors that American troops might be at risk if assigned to train these units.
Finally, this time we must leave a residual force to further train Iraqi military forces, conduct select counter-terror operations against radical Islamist elements, provide certain military capabilities as Iraq develops its own e.g. defend Iraqi airspace, provide intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) capability, signals intelligence functions etc. and assist Iraqi democracy take hold e.g. limit Iranian influence and deter non-democratic or sectarian tendencies if they arise in Iraq’s new government. Behind the scenes, a residual force should be part of the deal Iraq must pay for our intervention along with sharing some of the burden of the cost. Over time as we defeat ISIS, the case should be made to the American public.
Why we won’t
Sadly we will not do this. To be concise, the administration lacks the strength, fortitude and foresight to act or will to educate Americans about what’s at stake. What I described above is diametrically opposed to how the administration envisions American power being brought to bear. Further, it requires an admission that the previous approach was a failure..
Secondly, after over a decade of the left convincing America that US military action is wrong and ineffective to wrest power from the right (and then ineffectively trying to use that military power e.g. Afghan surge & Libya). Americans are mentally unprepared for the wholesale employment of US military might without an explanation from its leaders, an explanation that will never come.
The administration sees foreign affairs not as a primary responsibility but a distraction from its primary interest, domestic initiatives.
What we will do
The administration will emplace a vaguely described US effort spearheaded by unnamed or incapable “partners”, vehemently promising no deployment of US ground troops (while we have 1200 troops and soon to be more on the ground). The end state will be an unconvincing and ill defined “dismantle & defeat” of ISIS (or ISIL, so the word Syria doesn’t enter the conversation). This “goal” will be achieved by a “nuanced” air campaign too complicated to explain to the common man. It is a prescription for incremental escalation something we have seen with the piecemeal commitment of “non-combat” troops shortly after the fall of Mosul. Who would ever have thought an Apache attack helicopter platoon and a half weren’t combat troops? What are they sling loading? (BTW Apaches don’t have a hook) This pitiful approach will satisfy the public’s need for action without putting in place a solution. This is in effect a solution after all. It’s the means to delay the inevitable commitment of US troops into combat roles in Iraq until a new president is in power who the present administration can blame for not having a nuanced touch or without the force of personality of the current administration.
This will be further justified by the administration’s enablers with congratulations for not involving the US in another civil war. The term “civil war” is key. It is less threatening than talking about terrorists who publicly threaten the US and behead journalists.
The next two years will be punctuated with a slow but steady increase in airstrikes, drones, CIA, special ops involvement and private military contractors serving as the band aide to get us to Jan 20 2017. Iraqi militias, unpublicized Iranian partners, aid to Kurds (which will make them less inclined to join Iraq later and will sow the seeds for conflict with Turkey and Iran), a largely symbolic European assistance (except for the Brits) will be the echo to the sounds of battle with ISIS.
Unique moments like VP Biden’s strident claims that we will, “Chase them (ISIS Terrorists) to the Gates of Hell will be countered by missives like the unnamed special operator who said: “Chase them to the Gates of Hell? How the [f—] are we going to do that when we can’t even leave the front gate of our base!?” Morale is going to take another hit in our armed forces.
As I said in Part I, the wrong kind of intervention will hurt our interests. Arming the Kurds will set them up for their eventual failure at the hands of Iran or Turkey and may even include our involvement over a sense of ownership since we have been intimately involved supporting and protecting the Kurds since 1991. Further our ill-defined operations will be responded to with clear ISIS viciousness enabling a further portrayal of the US as a paper tiger. This perception will play a role in the realizing the larger US intervention in the future.
There are two potential near term outcomes to our halfhearted and halting intervention in Iraq. ISIS will be pushed back or it won’t.
If ISIS is pushed back it will likely look like Syria II which has killed 190 thousand thanks to Iranian warfighting methods and maybe US airpower. Iran will ascend in influence, power and military capability. You usually do after winning a war. Iran will export instability into Lebanon via its Hezbollah proxy. Jordan will be cowed or undermined by Iranian elements or their Syrian proxies, payback and setting up Israel. There will be imminent hostilities with Israel. Kurdish conflict is unavoidable. Saudi Arabia goes nuclear the day after Iran does (Saudi Arabia is rumored to own Pakistani armed nuclear missiles that only need to be delivered). Oil prices skyrocket over uncertainty in the region.
If ISIS holds/expands it will increase its capabilities (militarily, governing, media), continue to destabilize Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey. The sheer number of nations involved makes it likely somewhere ISIS gets lucky. ISIS will continue to draw/train terrorists from the world with the westerners exporting the skills learned in the region to their home countries. A Caliphate gains de facto worldwide recognition becoming a banner for radical Islamic unrest to coalesce around. Oil prices skyrocket over uncertainty in the region.
Recent news strongly implies joint and growing US Iranian cooperation. The siege of Ameril was not lifted solely by airpower. The Iranians had militiamen from the Badr Corps provide the ground power. The presence of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force mentioned above, reinforces the importance and strength of Iranian presence. Apparently Iranian and US airstrikes were alternately coordinated in the area. Finally, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader has approved military cooperation with US military forces. This news, coupled with the administration’s cozy negotiations with the Iranians over its nuclear program whose second phase has been extended four months support an outcome along the lines of the first scenario I described.
A Precarious future
Either outcome results in a stronger and larger enemy that will not be deterred by “airstrikes and regional partners”. After years of conflict the winner will have prepared for that eventuality. Multiple Islamic nations will be fighting radical Islamic movements within their borders supported, trained and directed by the radical Islamists who win in Iraq. Winners, with the assets of its satellite nations Syria and Iraq. Oil prices and potentially the supply will be impacted with worldwide repercussions. This path can lead to nothing else but a major conflict.
The spark may be the introduction of weapons of mass destruction and/or a strike at a major symbolic or population center like Mecca or Tel Aviv. Another potential flash point could be a ground invasion of the major players either of, or by, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq/Syria or Iran. In any of these cases we will be drawn into the conflict to protect the world’s lifeblood. That may happen due to a pre-emptive strike on our forces in the region (e.g. Kuwait or Qatar).
Airstrikes won’t be enough. Ground troops will be required in strength (remember why we had to send divisions to Saudi Arabia) and with the magnitude of the passions and radical Islamic ideology involved this will not be a short nor regionally isolated conflict. Additionally the direct participation of Russia cannot be discounted or Russia and China may see the events of the Middle East as an opportunity to achieve long sought after goals. In that case, if not before, all bets are off.
The result of this inevitable large scale intervention could result in fundamental changes to our way of life or even a defeat of the nation with unimaginable consequences.