There’s a growing sentiment in Washington that President Obama’s plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS is not working, and that much more needs to be done to halt the jihadist menace spreading across the Middle East.
Critics including soon-to-be Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney have complained that a strategy built around airstrikes and assistance to friendly Syrian rebels and other local proxies alone won’t be nearly enough to halt the mass murders, beheadings and terrorist aggression that are the trademark of the Islamic State jihadists.
U.S. actions since September have not prevented ISIS forces from expanding their control in Iraq’s Anbar Province and northern Syria. And by publicly ruling out the possibility of deploying U.S. ground troops or substantially widening the war effect, Obama’s relatively minimalist strategy has little chance of succeeding anytime soon – while opening the door to the spread of ISIS influence in other parts of the region.
So what to do? While many are taking pot shots at the president’s approach, few have offered a detailed prescription for turning the war effort. Max Boot, a military historian and the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick national security senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has just outlined a comprehensive plan for defeating ISIS that goes well beyond the commitments of Obama and U.S. allies. It might best be described as the “Full Monty” when contrasted with the administration's more limited approach.
Boot’s plan, published today by Defense One, sets out ten major initiatives that he claims would turn things around – including redefining the overall mission, greatly stepping up air strikes, increasing the size of the military force and broadening military alliances with other countries and factions. It doesn’t call for the immediate deployment of U.S. ground troops, but urges the president to put that option back on the table to strip ISIS of any false sense of security.
Here, according to Boot, is what Obama needs to do to beat ISIS:
1) Redefine the mission. The current goal to first “degrade” ISIS forces is too nebulous, and the ultimate goal of “destroying” ISIS is too ambitious. It would be far better to declare as the goal “defeating” or neutralizing the Islamic jihadists to end their ability to control significant territory or attract foreign fighters.
2) Intensify the airstrikes. While the Obama administration can rightfully point to the successful use of jet fighters and drones to thwart ISIS forces, the intensity and frequency of the air attacks is a mere fraction of what the U.S. did after invading Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. For example, between August 8 and Oct. 23 of this year, the U.S. conducted 632 air strikes and dropped 1,700 munitions in Iraq against ISIS forces. By comparison, U.S. aircraft flew 6,500 strike sorties and dropped 17,500 munitions in attacks against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in a similar time frame between Oct. 7 and Dec. 23, 2001.
3) Lift the prohibition on U.S. boots on the ground and allow Special Forces and forward air controllers to embed with the Free Syrian Army, Iraqi security and Kurdish peshmerga. The absence of U.S. military “eyes on the ground” have impaired the accuracy and effectiveness of air strikes and to improve the combat capacity of U.S. proxies.
4) Increase the size of the U.S. force. Actual military requirements – and not the arbitrary numbers dreamed up in Washington - should dictate the shape and size of the military force ultimately dispatched. The current total of 2,900, is inadequate. The actual need, according to military experts, probably ranges from 10,000 to 25,000 – and should include Special Forces teams and forward controllers.
5) Work with all of Iraq’s and Syria’s moderate factions. The U.S. should work with the peshmerga, Sunni tribes, the Free Syrian Army, and elements of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) that have not been overtaken by Iran’s Quds Force, rather than simply supplying weapons to the ISF. “Given Shiite militia infiltration, working exclusively through the ISF would risk empowering the Shiite sectarians whose attacks on Sunnis are ISIS’ best recruiter,” Boot said.
6) Send in the Joint Special Operations Command. The JSOC, largely composed of units such as Seal Team Six and Delta Force, became skilled at targeting the networks of al-Qaeda in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. It was so effective because of its ability to gather intelligence by interrogating prisoners and scooping up computers and documents—something that bombing alone cannot accomplish.
7) Draw Turkey into the war. This is easier said than done, but President Obama should do what he can to increase Turkey’s involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign. If the Turkish army were to roll across the frontier, it could push back ISIS and establish “safe zones” for more moderate Syrian opposition members.
8) Impose a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria. While U.S. aircraft are flying over Syria, they are not bombing the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. This has led to a widespread suspicion among Sunnis that the United States is now willing to keep Assad in power – and more broadly accommodate Assad’s backers in Tehran. “A no-fly zone over part or all of Syria would address these concerns and pave the way for greater Turkish involvement,” according to Boot.
9) Mobilize Sunni tribes. So long as the Sunni tribes of Iraq and Syria continue to tacitly support ISIS, defeating ISIS will be almost impossible. But if the tribes turn against ISIS, as they did against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007, a rapid reversal of fortunes is likely.
10) Prepare now for nation-building. The United States should lay the groundwork for a post-conflict settlement in both Iraq and Syria that does not necessarily require keeping both political entities intact. In Iraq, for example, that might mean offering greater autonomy to the Sunnis and guaranteeing the Kurds that their hard-won gains will not be jeopardized.
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