In his address last night, President Obama described “our strategy to destroy ISIS” as follows:
First, our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary. In Iraq and Syria, airstrikes are taking out ISIL leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers, infrastructure. And since the attacks in Paris, our closest allies — including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom — have ramped up their contributions to our military campaign, which will help us accelerate our effort to destroy ISIL.
Second, we will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens. In both countries, we’re deploying Special Operations Forces who can accelerate that offensive. We’ve stepped up this effort since the attacks in Paris, and we’ll continue to invest more in approaches that are working on the ground.
Third, we’re working with friends and allies to stop ISIL’s operations — to disrupt plots, cut off their financing, and prevent them from recruiting more fighters. Since the attacks in Paris, we’ve surged intelligence-sharing with our European allies. We’re working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria. And we are cooperating with Muslim-majority countries — and with our Muslim communities here at home — to counter the vicious ideology that ISIL promotes online.
Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has This is our strategy to destroy ISIL Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL — a group that threatens us all.
This is our strategy to destroy ISIL.
Note first that Obama, in this third point, concedes that American efforts to stop ISIS’s operations have been inadequate up until now. “Since Paris,” he notes, we’ve surged intelligence-sharing with our European allies. Why did he take this obvious step only after the Paris attacks?
But will Obama’s strategy destroy ISIS? It’s doubtful.
Step one — hunting down plotter and leaders and bombing this or that ISIS asset — will make life unpleasant for the terrorists but won’t destroy them or their caliphate. At best, bombing might soften them up.
Step two — equipping and training Iraqi and Syrian forces to fight ISIS — is unlikely to destroy ISIS any time soon. These forces have won some and lost some against ISIS. Overall, they seem to making progress — the caliphate is smaller than it was at its peak — but only slowly. They are a long way from destroying ISIS, and it’s not clear they will ever do so. In any event, ISIS will have plenty of time to find new safe havens, as it is already doing in places like Libya.
The third step — disrupting ISIS plots and financing — has little to do with destroying ISIS. Disrupted plots thwart ISIS but do not hurt it. And ISIS can finance itself, though less lavishly, by living off the land it holds.
Step three also includes “working with friends” to “prevent” ISIS from recruiting more fighters. Obama didn’t explain how our “friends” can stop ISIS’s recruitment efforts. Only defeating ISIS will accomplish this objective.
The weakness of Obama’s fourth step — begin[ning] to establish a process and timeline to pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war — is evident from the president’s own phrasing. In essence, we’re going to see if we can try to commence something that might help to end the war.
Give Obama credit for not overselling this. But recognize that ending the Syrian civil war through political efforts is probably pie-in-the-sky. There are too many players with too many divergent interests. Russia, to which Obama specifically refers, isn’t likely to bail Obama out by seeing Assad removed. And without Assad’s removal, there is no likely end to the war.
Obama, in sum, has failed to describe a promising strategy to destroy ISIS in short term. This means that ISIS will continue to recruit, continue to build itself up in new places, and continue to pose a terrorist threat to the West, including the U.S.
There is an obvious strategy to destroy ISIS in the short term, and the president discussed it. We could destroy ISIS by waging a ground war against it.
Don’t take my word for it; Obama said so himself. He declared: “[ISIL] know[s] they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced [note: and crushed, though Obama won’t say it directly] in Iraq.”
Why not crush them again? Because, Obama asserted, “they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.” And because we should not “send a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil.”
But crushing ISIS won’t require occupation of foreign lands for another decade. Obama is presenting us with another of his false choices. The Secretary of Defense has estimated that ISIS has about 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. A combination of U.S. and coalition forces could likely defeat these fighters in short order.
After that, U.S. forces should, in the main, leave. The forces that Obama is relying to defeat ISIS could then take over.
These, after all, are the same forces that presumably will be in charge if, in Obama’s scenario, they eventually defeat ISIS. By speeding things up we (1) make sure of success and (2) deal ISIS the devastating blow that’s necessary to shove it off of history’s stage.
Obama concluded his address by highlighting the need to stay true to America’s tradition. Our tradition in war has been to win, not to let other, weaker, forces fight our battles. When we have departed from this tradition we haven’t won on the cheap; rather, for the most part, we have lost.
Winning is the tradition to which we should be true.