FPI Bulletin: An Emerging Bipartisan Consensus on How to Fight ISIS

June 1, 2015

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed his concern that the White House has no strategy “at all” for confronting ISIS. Michèle Flournoy, Obama’s first Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told CNN that “now is the time” for the White House needs to start doing more in Iraq. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the leading Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, described the ISIS occupation of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, as “a very serious and significant setback.”

Since the concerns articulated by former Obama administration officials and leading Democrats are converging with those of Republicans critics, the President would enjoy bipartisan support for a more vigorous campaign to defeat ISIS.  That is, if he chooses to pursue one.

Three essential points of agreement for the White House to consider are how to improve the training of Iraqi forces, how to increase the effectiveness of American air strikes, and how to revise American policy toward the ISIS sanctuary in Syria.

Flournoy, who now serves as CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), also told CNN that the U.S. should bring its “training and advising down to the battalion level rather than just at the division level.” A battalion usually employs several hundred troops operating at the front lines, whereas a division oversees many thousands of soldiers from a more distant headquarters. Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at CNAS, explains that this distinction is important because American advisers presently cannot “bolster the Iraqi Army’s will to fight nor its success on the battlefield, where outcomes are determined by the performance of companies and battalions, not higher level strategy.”  

Last week, at a Senate hearing on Iraq, Gen. Jack Keane, US Army (ret.), also emphasized the importance of embedding advisers in frontline units. “Adviser teams must be with the units that are fighting,” Keane said, “at least at the battalion level, which is what we did in the past so successfully.” As an architect of the Surge in 2006-07, Keane is personally familiar with how the U.S. built a formidable Iraqi security force the last time around.

Shifting the focus of U.S. advisory efforts to front line units will also enhance the effectiveness of other tools, such as air power.  This is why Ms. Flournoy recommends, “Providing operational support on the battlefield. Enablers, air cover and so forth.”  Carter observes that advisers embedded at the battalion level could also “assist them by calling on U.S. airpower, intelligence, and other supporting assets.”

On the ground, American advisers could serve as forward air controllers, who help U.S. aircraft find their targets. Gen. Keane recently observed, “Seventy-five percent of the sorties that we’re currently running with our attack aircraft come back without dropping bombs, mostly because they cannot acquire the target or properly identify the target. Forward air controllers fix that problem.” This problem was foreseen by Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who wrote in July 2014, “It remains very hard to find and destroy an enemy of any significant size from the air absent good intelligence gained largely on the ground.”

While changing the nature of the U.S. support mission may help significantly in Iraq, the defeat of ISIS will also depend on taking the fight to their sanctuary in Syria, the third point of a growing emerging consensus.

Ilan Goldenberg, director of the CNAS program on the Middle East, explains, “The United States will never solve Iraq without a real Syria strategy and a more direct approach to addressing Iran's regional influence,” which may include airstrikes to support non-extremist forces in Syria.  Previously, Goldenberg worked at both the State Department and Pentagon for the Obama administration.

In his testimony, Gen. Keane made a similar point. “We have no strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria… Syria is ISIS’s sanctuary. We cannot succeed in Iraq if ISIS is allowed to maintain that sanctuary in Syria.” While pledging to support non-extremist forces in Syria, the administration’s effort has been lackluster at best. According to Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, who testified on the same panel as Gen. Keane, “The gap between the Obama administration’s stated goals and what we’re actually doing to shape the environment on the ground is alarming.”

While these steps will be critical to salvaging the campaign against ISIS, it is also important to place them in the context of America’s diminished military capabilities, which have resulted from both President Obama’s budget cuts and the constraints of sequestration. “You cannot argue for a forceful strategy in Iraq and defend the sequester,” insisted Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Instiute, “Our armed forces have been seriously damaged by the sequester. It needs to be removed immediately.” Other opponents of the sequester include Secretary Gates, Undersecretary Flournoy and dozens of other national security experts, including Kagan, who signed an open letter to Congress calling for the restoration of the defense budget to the level it was before five years of cutbacks.

Almost a decade ago, another President came under heavy fire for his failure to address violent extremism in Iraq. Despite a reputation for stubbornness, he discarded the flawed assumptions that had provided the basis of his Iraq policy for more than three years. President Obama should learn from his predecessor’s example. If he does, the result may be a return to the peace and security that Iraq enjoyed at the beginning of his presidency.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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