Commentary Magazine

Doubling Down on a Failed Strategy

After the terrible massacre carried out in Paris by ISIS, some analysts are asking the same question they asked in the summer of 2014 when ISIS was carrying out televised beheadings of American hostages: Why are they doing this? Don’t they realize it’s counterproductive? Won’t it just galvanize the world to defeat ISIS?

It’s impossible to know exactly what the apocalyptic fanatics who run ISIS think — and it’s certain that they think differently than the rational Western analysts who ask these questions. But we may surmise two answers to this question.

First, shocking acts of violence, whether against American hostages or Parisian concert-goers, enhance ISIS’s standing among a small subset of fanatical Muslims who form its core “audience” and support base. By taking the fight so directly and savagely to the “infidels,” ISIS eclipses rival groups such as al-Qaeda and creates an aura of fear that serves its interests.

Such attacks are all the more important now to counter any hint of weakness because ISIS has lost a small amount of territory at the margins of its “caliphate,” most recently around Sinjar, Iraq. ISIS needs to keep moving forward in order to avoid any impression of retreat — and the way it moves forward is by carrying out ever-more horrific acts of violence.

Second, ISIS just isn’t that afraid of the reprisals it will suffer. In this respect, it is like al-Qaeda on the eve of 9/11. Remember that Osama bin Laden had made clear his determination to wage war on the United States clear long before the  9/11 attacks — his terrorists had bombed the USS Cole and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And what had the response been? A few cruise missiles lobbed at empty al-Qaeda training camps. Bin Laden probably imagined that the response to 9/11 would be similarly feckless. Certainly he could not have imagined that the U.S. would be as effective as it was in ousting the Taliban regime, or else bin Laden would not have had to flee as hastily as he did.

Now, ISIS has been conquering territory and carrying out high-profile atrocities for nearly two years. What has been the Western response? A little desultory bombing that has helped to slow its advance and even rolled back its gains at the margins but that has not fundamentally shaken its hold on a vast territory that encompasses, inter alia, Raqqa, Palmyra, Mosul, and Ramadi. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “caliph” of this self-proclaimed state, can be forgiven for getting cocky and assuming that ISIS can weather the response to the Paris attacks as easily as it has weathered the response to its beheadings of hostages, its mass murder, its destruction of antiquities, its rape and enslavement of women, and other atrocities too numerous to list.

If this is, in fact, what Baghdadi thinks, the evidence so far indicates he is right. French President Francois Hollande has talked of waging “merciless” war on ISIS, but France is already committed in the Sahel region of Africa and lacks the ability to mount a ground offensive of his own. The most that France can do is to bomb a few ISIS targets as it is currently doing.

The only world power that could direct a credible military offensive against ISIS is the United States. But President Obama has made clear he has no intention of doing that. Instead, he said today that “there will be an intensification of the strategy we put forward … the strategy that ultimately is going to work.” That strategy consists of putting 3,000 or so American advisers on the ground in Iraq where they operate under such tight rules of engagement that they are effectively forbidden from leaving base, and of bombing ISIS targets at such a low rate that 75 percent of U.S. aircraft return to base without dropping their ordnance.

There is some indication now that the bombing is intensifying a bit, with the U.S. finally hitting ISIS fuel trucks that had been off-limits until now for fear of collateral damage. But even now the truck drivers are receiving advance notice to leave their vehicles ahead of the bombing for fear they will get hurt. This is hardly the action of a superpower fighting a war of survival. This is a difference in degree not in kind, indicating the even now the U.S. is still not getting serious about fighting a war against ISIS.

Obama utterly rejects the idea of putting U.S. troops into a position where they could help to rollback ISIS in cooperation with local allies. I have suggested an “Afghanistan Plus” plan — i.e., a plan based on the U.S. response to 9/11, which relied on supporting the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban. Only in Iraq and Syria, more U.S. troops will be needed because there is no military alliance as effective as the Northern Alliance. Thus, I have suggested sending perhaps 20,000 troops including several Brigade Combat Teams.

Nothing doing. Obama said at the G-20 summit, when asked about ground troops: “It is not just my view, but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers that that would be a mistake, not because our military could not march into Mosul, or Raqqa, or Ramadi, and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”

It’s true that there needs to be a “hold” force to follow the initial “clearing” phase. But what Obama’s facile response ignores is the fact that, as during the previous surge in Iraq in 2007 which he opposed (and still plainly does not understand), U.S. military action can galvanize local allies to act, whereas the current low-level of U.S. involvement ensures that Sunnis, in particular, will not be willing to challenge ISIS on their own, especially not when they fear that getting rid of ISIS will only clear the way for sectarian Shiite domination.

Obama made no reference to the need to create a new Anbar Awakening by offering Sunnis autonomy within a federal Iraqi structure — something that the U.S. can effectively guarantee even without Baghdad’s cooperation. The U.S. can simply train and arm Sunni rebel fighters and then announce, as it announced in the case of the Kurdish Regional Government in 1991, that the U.S would protect Sunni autonomy in the future. A Sunni Regional Government could effectively survive even without the support of Baghdad by developing its own oil and gas resources which are said, according to geological surveys, to be plentiful beneath the sands of Anbar Province.

If Obama won’t send in more U.S. troops or make a deal with the Sunnis, then he is doing nothing more than reinforcing a failed strategy. And that, in turn, will vindicate Baghdadi’s gamble that the U.S. and the entire West is, as Osama bin Laden used to say, a “weak horse” that can be attacked with impunity.

That is a dangerous message to send. Already we read of ISIS threats against Washington. The Department of Homeland Security says in response: “While we take all threats seriously, we do not have specific, credible information of an attack on the U.S. homeland.”

Not exactly reassuring. Of course, there is never “specific, credible information” before any successful terrorist attack such as the one in Paris. History has shown that we are consistently vulnerable to surprise attacks. The only way to enhance our safety is to destroy the ISIS “caliphate,” but this Obama refuses to do because he thinks the risks of action are too great. So we will continue to pay the price for inaction.

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