In the Wall Street Journal today, I have an op-ed arguing that air power alone has never won any war and won’t win the war against ISIS. It will require ground troops to destroy the Islamic State, and the U.S. has not had much success in getting proxies to do the fighting for us.
The most reliable have been the Kurds, but they won’t advance outside Kurdish areas. In Iraq, notwithstanding the belated offensive against Ramadi, which shows signs of success, there is little reason to think that the Shiite-dominated security forces and the Shiite militias, which are the real power now, have either the ability or willingness to take and hold Sunni areas. In Syria the situation is, even more, grave — aside from the Kurdish militia, the YPG, there is no force at all that is remotely capable of taking on ISIS, and the YPG is interested primarily in establishing its own state (Rojava) not in destroying the Islamic State.
That is why it looks increasingly likely that outside ground forces will be needed to defeat ISIS. And who will provide them? Reuel Gerecht, one of our canniest Middle East analysts, rightly derides hopes that Arab or European states will step forward with tens of thousands of ground troops. “Arab armies that could conceivably be used — Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, and Emirati — are not expeditionary forces,” he notes. “The autocrats of these lands simply aren’t stupid enough to send abroad their soldiers in numbers: These troops have the preeminent mission of protecting the status quo at home.” “And the Europeans,” he continues, “aren’t any bolder.” France is overstretched in West Africa, the British have cut their forces to the bones, and the Germans “remain materially and spiritually incapable of projecting much force abroad.”
That is why I believe the U.S. will need to step up and provide ground forces of its own. I have suggested it will take 20,000 to 30,000 troops to defeat ISIS. Perhaps the real figure is lower or higher. It’s hard to say, but clearly the 3,400 or so trainers and advisers that Obama has sent so far are inadequate.
But wait, say skeptics of ground forces: Wouldn’t we be giving ISIS exactly what it wants by sending U.S. troops into harm’s way?
This is the thesis of this New York Times article by correspondent Rukmini Kallimichi. ISIS, she writes, “bases its ideology on prophetic texts stating that Islam will be victorious after an apocalyptic battle to be set off once Western armies come to the region. Should that invasion happen, the Islamic State not only would be able to declare its prophecy fulfilled, but could also turn the occurrence into a new recruiting drive at the very moment the terrorist group appears to be losing volunteers.”
Not so fast, counters William McCants, an expert on ISIS at the Brookings Institution. He doesn’t advocate a large-scale ground invasion, but he casts serious doubt on whether ISIS really has a strategy to draw the U.S. into a costly ground war. The Times article, he notes, “observes that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the Islamic State’s predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq described the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as ‘blessed’ because it would create the chaos he needed to pursue his own state-building project there. But he was rejoicing because the United States was going to destroy the hated Baathist state, not a state created by jihadists. I doubt he would be enthusiastic if the United States and its allies destroy the state his successors built in Syria and Iraq.”
McCants makes a valuable point that tallies with common sense: Of course ISIS would love to drag the U.S. into a failing war effort like the Iraq War from 2003 to 2006 — a war that will bleed the U.S. dry and break the public’s will to fight, without destroying the Islamic State. But ISIS cannot be so enthusiastic about a more focused and effective U.S. military intervention that rallies Sunnis against ISIS and leads to catastrophic, near-fatal defeats of the kind that AQI suffered in 2007-2008.
We should, of course, be careful about any operation that puts U.S. ground troops in the line of fire, and we should be especially careful to avoid, if we can, the kind of protracted, unplanned, ill-thought-out, and under-resourced pacification operation that followed the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. If at all possible, the U.S. needs to train and arm a force of Sunni tribesmen who can act as the “hold” force after a U.S.-led “clearing” operation against the Islamic State. If we aren’t willing to get involved in beating ISIS on the ground, we’d better be willing to live with the probability that ISIS will remain uncontained, as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have admitted it is today.