FPI Bulletin: White House ISIS Efforts Don’t Go Far Enough

June 10, 2015

The Obama administration announced today that it will take additional measures to bolster Baghdad in its efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).  The United States will deploy 450 additional trainers to Iraq, and establish a new training base in Anbar province to facilitate training of Sunni fighters into the Iraqi army.  Though these efforts are welcome, they will likely not be enough to reverse the course of the faltering U.S.-led campaign.

At the same time, the White House has also emphasized indicators of alleged success against ISIS.  Specifically, the administration has advertised the number of ISIS fighters killed in battle and the percentage of ISIS territory retaken.  However, success in this war will not be measured by “body counts” or by shifting front lines, but rather by the security of the people of Iraq and Syria.  The administration should rethink its strategy in Iraq and Syria, and prepare the public for a much broader commitment in the Middle East.

Facing widespread criticism after the fall of Ramadi, President Obama asserted that ISIS gains represented only a “tactical setback.” To justify this assertion, spokesmen for the White House and State Department cited a Pentagon assessment that ISIS “can no longer freely operate in 25 to 30 percent of populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once could.”  This does not mean, however, that that territory had been reclaimed outright.  Indeed, an independent analysis conducted by Defense One and the Institute for the Study of War shows that the extremist group’s territory has actually grown since the U.S.-led campaign began last August.

Debating the amount of territory held by ISIS remains misleading, however, since the strategic and political value of that territory is what matters, not its size. Unpopulated deserts are much less important than provincial capitals like Ramadi. Upon closer inspection, the official map of ISIS setbacks shows that the extremists have mostly fallen back from their furthest lines of advance into Kurdish territory, which is difficult to hold because its population is hostile and prepared to fight back. In contrast, the group remains as potent as ever in the Sunni heartland of western and northwestern Iraq, which also provided a home for the al-Qaeda insurgency that threatened Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. To defeat that insurgency, Coalition forces had to cultivate a Sunni opposition to al-Qaeda that could secure the territory in partnership with an increasingly competent and non-sectarian Iraqi Security Force.

Another numerical measure on which the Obama administration has begun to rely is the number of ISIS fighters it believes to have been killed in battle. Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told an audience in Doha, Qatar that an estimated 10,000 ISIS fighters had been killed since August 2014. On the website for Operation Inherent Resolve, the Pentagon reports that Coalition airstrikes have taken out more than 300 vehicles, more than 1,400 fighting positions, and almost 1,800 buildings. Yet none of these numbers is particularly informative. The number of fighters killed or vehicles destroyed only matters if ISIS cannot replace them, yet its operations remain as aggressive as ever.

To achieve a more sophisticated measure of an insurgency’s power, one must also consider many factors that are unquantifiable or even intangible, such as the inclusiveness of Iraqi government or the competence of its security forces. As retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, told Martha Raddatz of ABC News, “[Y]ou can’t play a numbers game in this kind of effort. You can’t count how many people you’ve killed, particularly how many leaders, because they’re replaceable. What you’ve got to do is destroy the fabric of the organization, their ability to communicate, and that’s a little bit more intangible and takes a wider, more holistic effort.”

Rejecting the administration’s quantitative measures of success does not require a wholesale denial that the U.S.-led coalition has enjoyed some successes against ISIS.  The May 16 raid that targeted the Syrian residence of Abu Sayyaf—the organization’s top financial officer—has reportedly yielded a valuable trove of information on ISIS’ leadership structure, financial operations and operational security measures. Furthermore, Iraqi forces drove ISIS from key terrain during the effort to liberate Tikrit this spring, and the loss of as much as half of ISIS’ operational leadership in U.S. airstrikes “has the potential to at least temporarily impede ISIS’s ability to mount offensives equivalent to the one it launched to capture Mosul,” Jessica Lewis McFate of the Institute for the Study of War has recently written.

Nonetheless, McFate continues, the “only way to defeat ISIS is to guarantee a ground force that will occupy, secure, and rebuild Syria, and Iraq to a lesser extent.” To achieve that goal, the United States must thoroughly revise its strategy while investing sufficient resources to make it plausible.   To ensure that the anti-ISIS coalition can outfight, outmaneuver, contain and rollback the enemy, the United States should:

  • Accelerate and expand the U.S.-led air campaign.  Retired Air Force General David Deptula writes in the Washington Post that the current air campaign is “averaging 12 strike sorties per day,” a mere fraction of the number flown during similar-sized operations in the past.  Furthermore, the deployment of forward air controllers to front-line units would enable U.S. planes to unleash a much more effective bombing campaign that “can devastate [ISIS] to the point where Iraqi and Kurdish forces can end the occupation.”
  • Directly supply Sunni tribes and Iraqi Kurds. Kurdish militias are the "least armed and equipped" force in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday. Supporting the Sunnis is vital, said former Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane, because "The Sunni tribal force is almost nonexistent. Yet we cannot reclaim the Sunni territory that has been lost, particularly Anbar province and Mosul, and we cannot hold the territory after we have reclaimed it if we do not have a Sunni tribal force."
  • Change the situation on the ground Syria.  As a first step, the United States should neutralize Assad's air force, which he has used to relentlessly attack civilians, and create a "safe zone" along its borders with Turkey or Jordan. Next, the United States should accelerate and expand its efforts to train and equip vetted members of the moderate opposition.
  • Deploy as many 20,000 troops to train, advise, and assist the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Michèle Flournoy, Obama's former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, has recommended that U.S. trainers be deployed to front-line Iraqi battalions to help bolster the Iraqis’ will to fight, not just to the division-level headquarters to which they are presently assigned.
  • Consider the deployment U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq if the situation deteriorates further.  Dr. David Johnson of the RAND Corporation has recommended the introduction of a large U.S. ground combat force to remove ISIS from Iraq.  He says “Absent the introduction of US ground forces, the success of the US strategy is inextricably tied to means—the ISF, Shi’a militias backed by Iran, and the Peshmerga—whose capabilities and competence for the task is questionable, as are for some of them their increasingly retaliatory methods against Sunnis.” There is clearly strong opposition to any large-scale military deployment to Iraq, including the objections of Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno in a recent interview.  Yet if the United States is committed to defeating ISIS, as President Obama rightly says we must be, then it may be necessary to deploy American ground forces if others cannot accomplish the mission. The American people and those who serve in our military deserve an honest appraisal of the challenges before us and what may be necessary to overcome them.

In sum, while the administration is trumpeting statistics that paint a picture of U.S. success against ISIS, the recent fall of Ramadi and the organization’s expansion into a dozen countries from Africa to Asia demonstrate that such numbers have little real-world relevance.  The Obama administration should revise its strategy and prepare the U.S. public for the difficult but increasingly necessary commitment an effective strategy entails.

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