Commentary Magazine

How to Fight a Real War on ISIS

ISIS terrorists on the march

Is the phony war over at last?

That is the most immediate question we face in the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris, which killed more than 127 people. These attacks, in turn, come shortly after the bombing of Russia’s Metrojet airplane on a flight from Sharm al Sheikh, which killed 224 people, and after suicide bombings that killed at least 41 people in Beirut and 19 in Baghdad.

More than a year ago, in August 2014, President Obama recognized that ISIS was a real and growing threat. In retaliation for the televised beheadings of American hostages, he launched a desultory bombing campaign against ISIS and sent 3,400 U.S. advisers to Iraq to assist the Iraqi Security Forces in fighting ISIS. More recently he has announced the dispatch of 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria to work with Kurdish fighters. His goal, he claimed, was to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

But the extraordinarily limited nature of the American response made clear that he had a different goal in mind–the president, it is obvious, was really intent on containing ISIS rather than destroying it. Obama admitted as much in a singularly ill-timed interview on Friday in which he claimed that this goal was being achieved, that ISIL was being “contained.” Then just a few hours later the jihadist gunmen began rampaging through Paris. If this is what containment looks like, then it is not a goal that we can live with. Literally. We need rollback, not containment.

As long as the Islamic State continues to administer a “caliphate” — a functioning state — it will continue to serve as inspiration and training ground for jihadists from around the world, including a substantial number from Europe and the U.S. The fact that Paris has been hit twice this year with terrible terrorist attacks — the Charlie Hebdo attack was in January — shows what everyone already knows: that it is impossible to stop terrorism with a purely defensive strategy. The French actually have a robust internal security regime with extensive surveillance powers. But even they could not stop these attacks. We are engaging in wishful thinking if we imagine that U.S. will be any more immune to such assaults.

The only way to diminish the threat is to get on offensive, to end the phony war and engage in a real war against ISIS. What would such a “real war” strategy look like? We should be inspired by the aftermath of 9/11. The U.S., recall, did not stage a massive conventional invasion of Afghanistan. Instead we sent a relatively small number of Special Operations Force and CIA paramilitaries, backed by massive air power, to work with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban.

Granted, such a strategy is much harder to carry out today and requires a greater American commitment because in neither Iraq nor Syria is there a ready-made force such as the Northern Alliance that is ready to march on ISIS strongholds. So our objective should be to bring such a force into being by making an all-out push to mobilize Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS. We haven’t done that yet because President Obama has been too busy flirting with Iran, which the Sunnis rightly regard as their enemy. Instead of clinging to illusions that we can make common cause with the mullahs to fight against ISIS, we need to pursue a dual-track strategy to mobilize and support a Sunni uprising.

Track one is military: Increase our currently inadequate force in Iraq. We will probably need at least 20,000 personnel and they will need much more permissive rules of engagement that will allow them to go outside of their bases in order to call in air strikes and more effectively mentor indigenous forces fighting ISIS. High-end Special Operations Forces such as Delta Force and Seal Team Six will need to start targeting ISIS’s leadership directly and regularly. We may also need to put in ground combat units, at least a few brigades’ worth, to lead an assault on ISIS strongholds. If we step up our commitment, our allies are likely to do more as well, led by the newly enraged French.

Track two is political: Make an all-out diplomatic push to create a Sunni Regional Government, akin to the Kurdish Regional Government, protected by a new Sons of Iraq militia and backed by American security guarantees. This would give the Sunnis a reason to fight against ISIS, knowing they would not just be exchanging the tyranny of Iran for the tyranny of ISIS. The new Sunni region should agree to stay part of Iraq and share its water with the rest of the country in return for continuing to receive its fair share of oil revenues.

This may seem like a tall order today, but the two tracks will help enable each other: The more we commit militarily, the more leverage we will have over Iraqi politics, and the more credibility we will have with Sunnis. And the more we can do to flip Sunnis politically against ISIS, the more effective partners our military will have on the ground. We need to work not just with selected Iraqi Security Forces that have not been completely compromised by Shiite sectarians but also, and more importantly, with Sunni tribal militias, Kurdish militias, and other forces that are willing to fight ISIS.

Perhaps this is simply wishful thinking on my part. In all likelihood even now President Obama is not prepared to go nearly this far to fight ISIS. If so, the phony war will continue, and the number of ISIS’s victims will continue to grow.

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