Yesterday, I attended a conference at the Heritage Foundation. The topic was Iraq and Obama’s approach to dealing with the current crisis. The panel consisted of Steven Hadley (formerly, President Bush’s National Security Adviser), Mary Habeck (of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), and Steven Bucci (of Heritage and a retired Special Forces Colonel).
The panel quickly agreed on two things. First, President Obama will not commit a large number of American ground troops to fight ISIS. Second, his current military approach, consisting mostly of air strikes, will not defeat ISIS.
The question thus became whether there is an intermediate approach, one that goes further than Obama’s current one but stops short of a substantial U.S. ground commitment, through which ISIS can be defeated. The answer? It’s not clear.
Bucci argued in favor of mobilizing allies — the Kurds, some Sunnis, the Jordanians, the Saudis — to create a fighting force. We would embed some of our people with that force, and provide equipment, intelligence, and air power. This, he said, would be similar to our approach during the early days of the war in Afghanistan (but note that ISIS is much more battle-hardened than the Taliban was in 2001).
In this scenario, there would be boots on the ground but not, by and large, U.S. boots.
The question, though, is whether the U.S. can expect others to fight ISIS on the ground when we are unwilling to do so. After all, the risk of taking on these barbarians is enormous.
It’s one thing to defend against their advance, as the Kurds have tried to do but the Sunnis and the Iraqi army didn’t. It’s another to engage them in an area they already control. It seems to me particularly far-fetched to think that outsiders like Jordan will help fill the breach in Iraq if the U.S. isn’t willing to fight in numbers alongside them.
Habeck acknowledged this problem. However, she says that certain Sunni tribes that helped us during the successful 2007 surge are willing to take on ISIS if the U.S. provides strong backing.
That backing wouldn’t necessarily have to rise to the level of the surge. But it would have to involve considerably more than just air support.
Hadley believes that if a unity government is formed, and he thinks it will be, Obama will probably be willing to increase significantly the amount of equipment and other assistance to be provided to that government. But again, it is unclear whether our commitment will rise to the level necessary to spur a successful counter-attack against ISIS.
The panel also considered the direct threat to the U.S. homeland posed by ISIS. They found it substantial.
Bucci noted that ISIS has stated publicly it is coming after the U.S. We should believe it.
Hadley said that ISIS’s focus now is on consolidating what it has already won and expanding territorially in the Middle East. But this will change.
He also noted that some of the most militant members of al Qaeda in places like the Maghreb are switching their allegiance to ISIS. As they are absorbed, al Qaeda’s global vision may become more pronounced within ISIS.
However, Habeck believes that ISIS’s ideology already entails a global vision. It sees the Islamic state as a caliphate and, in their theology, there can be only one caliphate. This entails worldwide reach as prelude to worldwide expansion.
Reportedly, there are at least 100 ISIS fighter with U.S. passports and probably more than 1,000 with European ones. Thus, there is a very real threat that ISIS fighters will carry out acts of terrorism in the Europe and/or the U.S.
According to Habeck, ISIS isn’t playing “the long game,” as al Qaeda did. It has less patience.
Thus, we shouldn’t assume that ISIS will wait to hatch a grandiose scheme like 9/11 — one that requires lots of planning and has lots of moving parts, and thus one we have a decent chance of detecting in advance. ISIS is more likely than al Qaeda to produce an attack on our homeland just for the sake of producing an attack, and it is more likely to act spontaneously.
Perhaps the most telling and most frightening line of the day came in response to the question of whether ISIS has terrorist training camps like those operated by al Qaeda in the pre-9/11 days. Hadley responded that Syria and Iraq are ISIS’s terrorist training camp.