An Annenberg Center/Wall Street Journal poll conducted after President Obama’s ISIS speech found that “although nearly two-thirds of Americans said they supported Obama’s strategy, 70% said they did not have confidence that it would succeed in degrading or eliminating the threat the group poses.” It appears like a contradictory position to hold but they’re right if this means they have no confidence in airstrikes and ground assaults and are relying instead on the non-military elements of the strategy to win the day. Such is the thinking of General Martin Dempsey, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee “Truly there is no military solution to ISIL,” and added “it could be defeated only with a more comprehensive approach that includes diplomacy.” If the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sees the military approach as ultimately ineffective on its own, I wonder why the U.S. is going on the offensive. The role that the coalition’s armed forces should be taking is a primarily defensive one. ISIS only needs to be kept from expanding.
Containing ISIS has much to recommend it. The group has blended itself into the surrounding population and so ramped-up U.S. airstrikes would certainly result in civilian casualties and alienate Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. The return of U.S. ground troops would get a less-than-welcome reception in Iraq and is a political non-starter for the American people. Hitting ISIS in Syria risks getting the U.S. embroiled in that country’s civil war. But all of these headaches can be avoided if the U.S. limits its involvement to using its air power to bomb ISIS whenever it attempts to attack. This might have been the approach Obama wanted to take from the start (remember his “manageable threat” quote?) and Micah Zenko supposes it still is. He is convinced that “mitigation and containment will drive the US counterterrorism strategy regarding ISIS as a reality,” even though “the Obama administration (and Congress and the media) will pretend that the strategic end state is to defeat and destroy them.”
So who will be the force best suited to do the work of actually rolling back ISIS? Why, those very Sunnis who defeated them before during the U.S. occupation. As much as the Iraqi Foreign Minister thinks his nation’s regular army should be responsible for the fighting, having Shi’ite troops retaking territory could ignite more sectarian strife. No, this task belongs to the ‘Awakening’ militias that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki planned to resurrect in order to stifle ISIS. Once ISIS loses the support of the Sunni community, they’re finished. So the Sunnis need to be peeled away and there are two ways to go about this. One is to declare that if the Sunnis overthrow ISIS, they will be recognized as an independent Sunni state. If that isn’t entirely appealing to them and they think they have a shot at reconciling with the Shi’ites, Washington can lean on Prime Minister Hayder Abadi to grant them the autonomous Sunni region (like Iraq’s Kurds already have) that they requested last month.
With the Sunnis on board and fighting either for autonomy or independence (if Iraq seems beyond salvaging) the Caliphate will collapse. But what about the goal of destroying ISIS? While ISIS can be degraded and weakened to the same point al-Qaeda is today, eliminating them requires combating their narrative. “The true battle against such an organization is ideological,” writes Adil Shamoo, adding “The ideological battle may require changing U.S. policies toward the region in order to address the grievances of the people toward their governments, foreign forces, or occupiers.” For as long as Washington keeps propping up and cosseting their autocratic SOBs in the Middle East, there will be jihadist movements arrayed in opposition to those regimes and America. Destroying ISIS means the U.S. has to cease intervening and leave the region to its own devices. But Washington will never willingly give up imperialism. “A very senior SOF officer” told Richard H. Shultz that “more than once he heard terrorist strikes characterized as ‘a small price to pay for being a superpower.’” That mentality guarantees ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc will continue to cling to life.