5 Reasons the U.S. Cannot Defeat ISIS
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama will sit down with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to talk about the strategy to fight the Islamic State. The president will lay out what he wants Iraq to do, including making good on promises to empower Sunni militias and tribes. Indeed, there are many things the United States can do to counter the Islamic State: It can increase the number of special forces deployed in the region; assign U.S. troops as spotters and coordinators with forward-deployed Iraqi units; supply weapons directly to vetted Sunni militias; and increase airstrikes.
But what it cannot do is defeat the Islamic State and eliminate it from Iraq and Syria. Even if we finesse the problem and use Obama's clever turn of phrase, to "ultimately defeat" ISIS, as our goal, we had better get used to a very long war. Even with such a war, victory as conventionally defined may still be elusive. Here is why.
The Islamic State will die only when the Middle East is reborn: This will not happen for years to come, if indeed it ever does. The Islamic State, or more specifically its forerunner, al Qaeda in Iraq, rose as a Sunni insurgency in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and to Shiite regional dominance. The group was energized by Shiite triumphalism in Iraq and received a further boost from the rapid U.S. withdrawal from the country. Now it has surged largely as a result of regional dysfunction, and it succeeds in countries where no governance (Syria) or bad governance (Iraq) are the rule, not the exception. The Islamic State's spread to Yemen, Libya, and Sinai is fed by the expanse of empty, uncontrollable spaces, by access to weapons and money, and by the spread of a vicious Islamist ideology that speaks to the grievances of an embattled Sunni community searching for an identity around which to rally. Rooting out the organization would require transformational change in both Syria and Iraq. An important facet of that change would be the rise of good governance that empowers and includes Sunnis as well as Shia.
Defeating ISIS requires a Solution to the Syria Problem: ISIS is an Iraqi organization, and Iraq is where its aspirations lie. But Syria is where its putative caliphate has been established, and as a base for expansion it continues to hold promise. The Assad regime's brutal policies create potential ISIS recruits faster than the West can possibly train Sunnis to oppose the group. Further, most Sunnis want to fight Assad, not ISIS, and ISIS cooperates with the regime at times in order to weaken rival Sunni groups. In this confusion and chaos, ISIS thrives. Indeed, even if the civil war somehow ended, ISIS might well be the beneficiary. As the strongest power on the ground, it might expand further, even threatening to take its first major Arab capital - Damascus. Without a solution to Syria - and none is likely - there is no defeating ISIS.
There is no regional military force capable of defeating ISIS: The solution to ISIS is not a military one. Still, military force could stop ISIS gains and begin to lay the basis for the group's demise. But there is no force, nor combination of forces, willing or able to accomplish this objective. The notion of an Arab state coalition will remain a thought experiment, and the Iraqi military, as seen recently in Ramadi, is not up to the job. Political considerations - largely Shiite pushback - prevent the training and arming of Sunni tribes and militias. The Kurds are too weak, and their peshmerga too localized a force. Even Iran's Shiite militias would have a hard time defeating the Islamic State in Sunni-majority areas, and relying on Iran would threaten the already precarious balance between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis. A fully effective Iraqi national army, with the will and the capacity not just to retake territory but to hold it, would be the answer - but that for now seems a distant dream.
The United States lacks the will for this fight: Americans could defeat the Islamic State on the battlefield - certainly in Iraq, and probably in Syria, too. But the odds of this administration, or even one led by a Republican successor, being willing to make the necessary commitment to both battlefields, seem very small indeed. The American public and the U.S. Congress have grown risk-averse after years of investment in the Middle East that brought no tangible returns. Moreover, at times military force is simply an instrument to achieve sustainable political goals. There is simply no reason to believe that the political end state in Iraq or Syria would turn out any better than it did in Iraq or Afghanistan over the past decade, when the United States deployed tens of thousands of troops and spent trillions of dollars.
Lack of a mandate: The Obama administration turned its attention back toward Iraq after the Islamic State beheaded individual Americans and seemed ready to plan attacks against the United States. A Pew poll in February showed that while there is support for more assertive action against the Islamic State, there is also growing concern that the United States would become too deeply involved in Iraq and Syria. This would seem to give the administration the political space to do more against the Islamic State, but within certain limits. What would that mean? Perhaps more airstrikes, or a greater deployment of special forces positioned more centrally. There is no mandate to pursue anything like the kind of nationbuilding effort we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
Trying to determine the right approach toward ISIS, and the right amount of resources to dedicate to the task, remains the central challenge for this administration and for its successor. Perhaps a significant terror attack in the United States would shift that balance toward a more aggressive strategy - but even then, the same constraints would apply. Fourteen years after 9/11, we have yet to defeat the terrorist derivatives that al Qaeda spawned, including the Islamic State. At best, we can degrade ISIS's capabilities; keep it on the defensive; hold the line against further takeovers of Iraqi territory; mobilize local allies against it; and most important, try to prevent and pre-empt its efforts to direct attacks on U.S. soil. But defeating ISIS is for now an unattainable objective - one to ponder during the long war to come.