President Obama is not being honest about his strategy to fight ISIS. He claims to be seeking to “degrade and destroy” the terrorist state. In reality he is merely trying to “contain” it. Because the administration isn’t honest about what it’s up to, it is unable to make a public case in favor of what it is actually doing.
Into this void step the esteemed political scientists Stephen Biddle and Jacob Shapiro. (Shapiro teaches at Princeton, Biddle at George Washington University. Biddle is also an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where I am a senior fellow. I have known and respected Biddle for years and even worked with him briefly in Afghanistan.) In this Washington Post op-ed, they offer the most cogent and compelling case for containment that I have yet seen. I do not agree with their arguments (for reasons I will explain below) but they make good points that deserve a serious hearing.
Their argument essentially boils down to two propositions: (1) Defeating ISIS will require a lot more U.S. ground troops — at least 100,000 — than Washington is willing to send. They suggest that sending 20,000 to 30,000 troops, as some of us have suggested, will not get the job done because of a paucity of reliable proxies in Iraq and Syria. (2) A better alternative is to contain ISIS until it collapses from within.
Of these two propositions, I would say the first is more compelling, if still speculative. We simply don’t know if it would be possible to mobilize more effective indigenous resistance against ISIS by following the strategy I, among others, have suggested — which is to say, increasing U.S. troops levels to 20,000-30,000 while offering Sunnis a compelling reason to fight (in Iraq, offering them autonomy via a Sunni Regional Government; in Syria, offering them the end of the Assad regime).
It’s true that in 2007 it took more than 150,000 troops in Iraq to galvanize the Anbar Awakening, but most of those troops were stationed outside Anbar. Within Anbar itself, the U.S. had fewer than 40,000 troops. In the case of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, the U.S. deployed only a few hundred Special Operations Forces and CIA operatives, backed up by copious airpower, to back up the Northern Alliance. That was sufficient to overthrow the Taliban.
Biddle and Shapiro actually seem to concede that sending as few as 20,000 U.S. troops would be enough to rout ISIS from cities it controls such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Ramadi. Their primary concern, as it should be, is with the question of what forces will “hold” those cities and the surrounding countryside after the “clear” phase is done. Using counterinsurgency math, they suggest that 160,000 troops will be needed to hold areas currently under ISIS control.
Even if that’s true, it is hardly the case that 160,000 troops (which could be American, but could also be supplemented by allied forces, e.g., French, British, Egyptian, Saudi, Turkish) would need to be stationed in Iraq indefinitely. After the initial success of the surge in 2007, the U.S. was able to pare down force levels without sacrificing security. By 2011, there were some 40,000 troops left. If they (or even a lesser number) had been kept in Iraq, it is probable that Iraq would have remained stable and ISIS would never have arisen to take over the Sunni Triangle.
It is certainly the case that if the U.S. manages to oust ISIS, it will have to commit to maintaining some troops in Iraq for the long-term to maintain stability. But this would not have to result in continuing casualties and could be done with public support. After all, there was no groundswell of public opinion to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, just as there is not today to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
Where the Biddle-Shapiro thesis really breaks down is in their confidence that containment is a viable alternative. They say that eventually the Islamic State will “collapse from within” because it will run out of resources to sustain its caliphate: “Its territory is mostly desert with little economic activity. Oil production is dropping, partly because equipment is bombed or failed and partly for lack of experienced management. What oil is sold goes at a discount rate. Taxes are the main source of revenue, and they appear to be high and unpredictably imposed.”
Maybe this is so, but maybe it isn’t. Lots of dysfunctional states can continue to exist for a very long time. Look at North Korea, which has been around for 70 years despite its utterly inability to provide for even the most basic needs of its people. Or, for that matter, look at nearby countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, which also have a poor record of providing the basic functions of a state and yet continue to exist. ISIS has already defied numerous predictions of its collapse by showing that it is highly skilled at extracting resources (it is estimated to earn as much as $1 billion annually) and, even more important, at controlling the population under its grip.
Even Biddle and Shapiro concede: “It could take many years for the Islamic State to exhaust its economy. Meanwhile it would still pose a terror threat.” The last point is the real poison pill here: Even if ISIS is prevented from expanding further in Iraq and Syria (which is by no means a certainty), it can still expand abroad, whether by sponsoring terrorist operations like the one in Paris or by grabbing new territory as it has done around the Libyan coastal city of Sirte.
In sum, Biddle and Shapiro may be right that it would take more than 20,000 U.S. troops to defeat ISIS. But I would argue that sending 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops — while also implementing a different political strategy — would give us a much greater hope of success than we have today. If that commitment is ultimately insufficient, then we can reevaluate options in the future. But “containment” of ISIS is not a plausible option, as even Hillary Clinton has said.
ISIS Cannot Be Contained
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.
We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Hair immolation isn't a strategy.
The Democratic Party is in the midst of some soul searching after an overhyped Democratic candidate failed to flip a Republican district. For many, that soul-searching has taken the form of blame- shifting.
Buoyed by district-level polling and the abiding sense that the country was eager for an opportunity to censure President Donald Trump, Democrats became convinced of Jon Ossoff’s electability in the race to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress. Amid their grief over this misjudgment, Democrats are groping in search of a cause for this letdown other than their own imprudence.
The voters in Georgia’s 6th didn’t respond to Ossoff’s centrist appeals and cautious campaign, some contended. What made the difference was vicious outside attacks like one (condemned by all parties) that sought to tie the Democratic candidate to the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia last week. The notion that the affluent, well-educated, urban professionals who populate this Trump-skeptical, GOP-leaning district in the outskirts of metro Atlanta are just too redneck to vote Democrat doesn’t wash.
Others have suggested that Ossoff’s message was poorly calibrated to meet this particular moment. The Democratic candidate’s reluctance to specifically campaign against Donald Trump by name was, in their estimation, a miscalculation. “One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” declared Center for American Progress’ exasperated president, Neera Tanden. “In an incendiary time, Ossoff has striven to be nonflammable,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea. Indeed, Ossoff’s reluctance to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment and his skepticism toward progressive spending proposals led some liberals to speculate (sotto voce, of course) that this was the wrong man to pilot a “Trump-backlash trial balloon.”
Implied in these frustrated expressions of angst is the notion that Ossoff just didn’t speak the language of apocalypse to which Democrats in the age of Trump are accustomed. But this is untrue. Ossoff did speak this language. He devoted time on the trail to lecturing about the threat to American “prosperity and security” represented by climate change. “History will condemn us,” Ossoff said after Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He cut campaign spots warning that Trump “could start an unnecessary war” and implied that he lacked the judgment to determine the appropriate response to the prospect of an incoming volley of nuclear weapons. In his concession speech, Ossoff praised his supporters for standing with him even “as a darkness has crept across the planet.” Is this what amounts to caution and prudence in the modern Democratic rhetorical catalogue?
Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to conduct any public postmortem on their party’s 2016 campaign, in part, because its members don’t believe they did anything wrong. Perhaps they are operating on the assumption that Donald Trump’s victory was some kind of fluke and the GOP’s historic majorities on the state-and federal-level were the natural results of a pendulum swing against similarly prohibitive Democratic majorities. Whatever the thinking, this reluctance has led to what may become a crippling strategic disconnect. The Democratic Party’s base and its elected representatives are not on the same page.
Jon Ossoff and his team used the unprecedented resources at their disposal to test and refine a message that was perfectly attuned to voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Despite that well-orchestrated effort, he still came up short. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, having no other indicator of their rhetorical efficacy than their hysterical friends, are convinced that their representatives are simply not fraught enough. Democratic voters, not their elected representatives, call the tune. Eventually, they’ll get what they demand.
Ossoff and the Democrats played a good hand well, but not well enough to beat the house. That happens. The risk for Democrats in this instance is to blame this losing candidate for failing to indulge their insatiable ids. It’s a risk for any party to elevate candidates for high office solely because they tickle their base voters’ erogenous zones. As The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson warned, “get ready for the Democrat version of Christine O’Donnell.” For Democrats in these overheated times, that’s a risk they seem willing to take.
A post-ISIS Potsdam Conference.
Max Boot is right: Russia is not going to risk igniting a third world war by targeting coalition aircraft over the skies of Syria. And yet it would be a mistake to ignore Moscow’s warnings. They are indicative of the unstable international environment that could become the new status quo in a world after ISIS.
As the ISIS threat is disrupted and the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks amid pressure from coalition fighters and their allies, the sovereign powers that intend to maintain their positions in the region after that conflict are asserting themselves in unpredictable and increasingly violent ways.
On Tuesday, the United States shot down an armed Iranian drone that officials said posed a direct threat to U.S.-led coalition troops on the ground in Syria. It was the second time this month that an Iranian-made military UAV was shot out of the sky after it allegedly targeted U.S.-supported forces. In a major escalation, a U.S. warplane engaged and shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber on Sunday when it reportedly bombed American-backed forces laying siege to the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. Moscow responded to this attack on its vassal state with unnerving threats.
“From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets,” read a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The implication that Russia would target and potentially attack Western aircraft was later downgraded to a promise to escort them out of area. But the important bit wasn’t Russia’s threat but the region Moscow had defined as off limits.
By delineating the territory west of the Euphrates as beyond the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition mission, Russia has drawn the preliminary outlines of an informal Syrian partition. It is no coincidence that the two Iranian drones destroyed by coalition forces were struck near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. According to former Obama administration advisor and Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl, the regime wants “to own the rest of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, where they hope to link [with] Iranian-backed Shia militia.” Even if the West is not preparing for the post-conflict world, Iran, Syria, and Russia are.
The only post-war planning that appears to be on the minds of Western geopolitical architects is the need to rebuild Syria, if only to stave off a humanitarian disaster and prevent further migrations of displaced refugees into Europe. In early April, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini revealed just such a plan, contingent upon progress toward Bashar al-Assad’s abdication. This announcement was overshadowed, however, by a brutal chemical attack by regime forces on civilians—an attack that resulted in direct hostilities between the United States and the Syrian regime.
Efforts to create a post-war power-sharing framework have stalled, but the task is growing more urgent by the day. With Iran and its proxies, Russia, and Damascus on one side, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and their proxies on another, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Australia presiding over all of it, theompeting interests in Syria are impossible to manage absent some kind of structure. Even when ISIS is routed and scattered, the Syrian regime seems likely to endure in some form. That alone ensures that these powers will remain at cross-purposes and, thus, that there will be no speedy troop withdrawals from the region.
The chaos in Syria is only going to get worse as the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is contained and controlled. Great power politics is about to make a comeback in the Middle East, and the West doesn’t seem to be ready for it.
Old obsessions die hard.
On June 18, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched missiles into Syria in retaliation for a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb the previous week. While these missiles appear to have caused no casualties, Iranian officials were clear that their target went far beyond the Islamic State. According to the Tehran Times:
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC aerospace unit, hailed the missile raids, saying any more evil act against Iran will result in “costly consequences.” “Our enemies should know that Tehran is not London or Paris,” Hajizadeh stated, a reference to the European capitals coming under numerous terrorist attacks over the past years. Iran vowed quick revenge after ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the parliament and the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini on June 7, killing 18 and injuring at least 56. In a statement released after the attacks, the IRGC vowed avenge, saying, “The spilling of any pure blood will not go unanswered.” Also, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, head of the Iranian armed forces, pledged “unforgettable lessons” to terrorists and their backers after the Tehran assault. Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei tweeted, “This was just the beginning of the revenge. Harsher slap is underway.” Rezaei also called the missile attacks “the message of Iran’s authority” to “the supporters of terrorism.”
Ahmad Majidyar, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute and a talented Iran-watcher, noted that Rezaei tweeted, “Mr. Netanyahu, this was just the message of Zolfiqar (missile); the message of Shahab and Zelzal is much stronger!” before erasing his tweet.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry has recently been making the rounds lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, for example, he traveled to Norway where he sat on a podium with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There, both criticized the Gulf Arab state and the current U.S. administration. In Kerry’s quest for the prize, he either lied about U.S. allies or leaked highly classified intelligence by detailing the (still-classified) contents of conversations. Either way, he sought to depict himself as a peacemaker when, in reality, he emboldened and resourced the main source of instability in the region. In his quest to secure an accord and to cement his own personal legacy at any strategic cost, he watered down language about Iran’s ballistic missile program. This provided Iran with cover, or at least enough legal ambiguity, to pursue its ballistic missile program.
Kerry and his team knew Iran’s aggressive intent but did not care. Numerous Iranian officials—including those surrounding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have pledged to develop and even use nuclear weapons. It was Hassan Rouhani, as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who managed, resourced, and oversaw Iran’s covert nuclear program to develop such weaponry. Indeed, he subsequently bragged about it.
Despite Iran lobbyists’ efforts to suggest that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel’s should be wiped off the map, pictures from Tehran and Iran’s own official translations tell another story. When Major-General Hassan Moghadam died in an explosion at a missile laboratory and test facility in 2011, the Iranian press reported that his last will and testament asked that his epitaph read, “The man who enabled Israel’s destruction.” A year ago, Iran tested to ballistic missiles inscribed in Hebrew with calls for Israel’s destruction.
Iran’s immediate target might have been the Islamic State, but its ideological goal remains eradication of Israel. That the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards tweeted acknowledgment of such goal should not be as easily erased as his tweet. After all, Iran deal or not, it is the Revolutionary Guards and not Zarif who are in charge of the military applications of Iran’s nuclear program.