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ISIS Can Win Without Baghdad

I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

Certainly the public pronouncements from the White House do not communicate the gravity of the situation. Instead administration leakers are claiming that urgent action is not needed because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stalled in its attack north of Baghdad, which is protected not only by Iraqi security forces but also by Shiite militias. That is true, but it’s not the whole story. For one thing, ISIS continues to make important gains in the north, with the most recent news being that Iraq’s largest oil refinery, at Baiji, has fallen to the terrorists. If they manage to continue operating the refinery it will result in a critical lost of revenue (and power) for Baghdad and a concomitant increase in money and power for ISIS.

Moreover ISIS does not have to take Baghdad, much less the Shiite heartland, to win. It wins if it can simply establish and maintain an Islamist emirate encompassing not only the Sunni Triangle of Iraq but also northern Syria–a goal it is well on its way toward achieving. Eventually ISIS rule will chafe on the people under its thumb, as happened previously in Anbar Province–and as seen earlier in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Fundamentalist jihadist rule is not very popular.

But that’s in the long run. In the short term a lot can and likely will happen if ISIS can consolidate its authority. It is likely, for example, to welcome a motley who’s who of international jihadists to its domain where they can be trained and, in some cases, exported to carry out terrorist attacks in their homelands–including Europe and the United States.

Some will argue that I’m overstating the danger because it’s not in ISIS’s interest to directly target the U.S. or our allies because this is more likely to trigger American intervention. But the same thing could have been said about the Taliban and al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. For some strange reason the reasoning of Western faculty lounges does not always resonate with the hard men of the jihadist movement.

The longer that ISIS controls northern and western Iraq and northern Syria, the more its power will grow and the harder it will be to dislodge. This will likely harden the division of Iraq between a Sunni terrorist state and a Shiite terrorist state. This is or should be America’s worst nightmare–and it is why the president needs to act with greater dispatch and decisiveness than is his usual professorial pattern.



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