President Obama’s ‘targeted, relentless counterterrorism campaign against ISIL’ looks more like ‘sloth and pause’ compared to the 2003 ‘shock and awe’ attack on Iraq. Since the President’s 10 September statement, four air strikes (as of time of publication) have destroyed three ISIL ‘armed vehicles’ and a mortar emplacement (here and here). That’s bad news for the occupants of a few HiLuxes but hardly a decisive blow against ISIL.
In a hapless media briefing last Friday the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said degrading and destroying ISIL could not be done militarily. ISIL’s ideology is the thing that needs to be destroyed, he said, ‘that’s not going to be defeated through military means alone. It’s going to take time and it’s going to take good governance, responsive politics, both in Iraq and in Syria.’ Meantime, Kirby admitted that a deployment of 125 US personnel to Erbil—part of the 475 extra US forces pledged by Obama—had been delayed: ‘We are still working through some of the sourcing solutions with that 125 personnel presence that will go to Erbil.’
Sourcing solutions? Seriously? The wheels have fallen off America’s ‘relentless’ campaign before it even starts. It’s positive that Obama finally decided to build an international coalition, and sooner or later air strikes will be launched against the ISIL leadership. But there’s no clear strategy yet, no thinking about the right way to sequence military and political elements and far too much willingness to curb a sensible strategic response to the demands of American politics.
For a campaign against ISIL to work the Obama administration needs to clarify its thinking. Failure to do so risks swinging between disinterest and unfocused engagement. Obama famously dictated his military strategy for Afghanistan in late 2009 after becoming frustrated with advice from officials. His ‘term sheet’ memo set the boundaries for American involvement in Afghanistan for the next half decade. An anti-ISIL ‘term sheet’ should contain five key points:
1) The focus is destroying ISIL, not rebuilding Iraq and Syria.
The combination of ISIL’s unyielding ideology and propaganda skills makes the group a direct threat to US and broader Western interests. The risk of ISIL exporting terror attacks to the West and consolidating its hold in Iraq and Syria requires an immediate response, regardless of how inclusive the government is in Baghdad. Only after ISIL has been reduced to a fragmentary force does it make sense to worry about Middle Eastern governance.
2) Air strikes must happen soon.
To make any military sense the US must begin air strikes soon. ISIL will be copying Hamas and surrounding its leaders with civilians to complicate targeting while preparing propaganda for release after air strikes that will play to regional sympathies. The longer the US waits to strike the less effective the campaign will be.
3) Accept the need for some ground forces.
Around 1600 US military personnel will be in Iraq after the announced 475 troops deploy. In all likelihood there will be a need for a few thousand additional personnel, which Washington will have to send if they want to consolidate the gains from air strikes. Rhetoric about ‘no boots on the ground’ just disguises what needs to be done to give effect to Obama’s announced strategy.
4) Assad is not our friend.
President Obama is right not to throw his lot in with Syria’s loathsome Bashar al-Assad, whose human-rights violations make ISIL look like amateurs. But Obama’s strategy is hostage to receiving Congressional approval to fund so-called moderate opposition forces and the Pentagon (in Admiral Kirby’s brief) has hinted that it would take a year or more to train a capable Syrian militia. In the meantime air strikes against ISIL in Syria will be essential to avoid creating a safe-haven for terrorists who slip across the border.
5) Don’t over invest in coalition building.
The British are mainly worried about their own separatist insurgency in Scotland and won’t commit to air strikes until after the independence referendum on 18 September. The French are positive but will want help in return in North Africa. The Australians are enthusiastic but won’t move until the US does. The Turks won’t do anything to enhance Kurdish authority. The Saudis and Gulf States are conflicted. The Iranians have a tactical interest in backing Baghdad but primarily with the intent of keeping it dependent on Tehran. An international coalition, in other words, gives Washington the right look, but it isn’t worth slowing down US action to build such a high-maintenance group.