Much More Is Needed to Stop the Islamic State Group

Getty Images

The Paris terror attacks demonstrate that the Islamic State group is a grave and growing threat. Matthew Olsen, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Congress this week that there have been 41 Islamic State group or Islamic State group-inspired attacks against the West so far this year, twice the number in all of 2014. The group controls a swath of territory in Iraq and Syria the size of Great Britain, but it also has affiliates in nine countries and regions. Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane described the group as "the most successful terrorist organization in modern history."

But, President Obama made clear in his press conference Monday that he does not plan to make any major revisions to his Islamic State group strategy following the Paris attacks. Instead, the president dismissed his critics, saying, "As I listen to those who suggest something else needs to be done, typically the things they suggest need to be done are things we are already doing."

But in fact, the White House has ignored or dismissed numerous suggestions for how to prosecute the war against the Islamic State group more effectively without employing a substantial number of ground troops. In light of the growing threat, Obama should reconsider the following options:

  • An Accelerated Air Campaign Against the Islamic State Group. Security analysts Frederick and Kimberly Kagan warn, "Restrictive rules of engagement have prevented U.S. aircraft from attacking many targets in Iraq and Syria." The United States should use air power to "force them to go to ground, to stop maneuvering vehicles, and to stop massing forces." This "would degrade their abilities to conduct offensive operations significantly and would facilitate the formation of opposition groups that could ultimately recapture ground."
  • No-Fly Zones Along Syria's Borders. Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War showed how no-fly zones could be established along Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan with a comparatively low level of U.S. commitment. The United States could use modified Patriot missile batteries near the Syrian border, or stand-off patrols in Turkey or Jordanian airspace to enforce these zones, or even conduct a small air campaign using stand-off weapons from the air and sea to neutralize Assad's air power. These areas would not only provide a humanitarian enclave for the 7.6 million Syrians who are internally displaced, but allow moderate opposition forces a secure area to organize and train in preparation for taking on the Islamic State group and the Assad regime.
  • An Expanded U.S. Mission in Iraq. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey writes in The Washington Post that the "defeat of the Islamic State is not going to happen absent a first-class, mobile ground force being launched to mate with overwhelming air power." This force does not need to be extensive. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan estimate 10,000 U.S. troops would be required, including "U.S. Special Forces, tactical air controllers to direct precision strikes in direct support of Iraqis fighting on the ground, additional helicopter and artillery support, and a variety of other technical capabilities that only the U.S. can provide." In addition, "American advisors embedded with the Iraqi Security Forces would make their combat efforts more effective" if these advisers were deployed to the battalion-level, says Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security.
  • Increased Support for Indigenous Forces. A key part of America's effort should be to bolster the ability of local forces to defend themselves against the Islamic State group. In Iraq, Fontaine writes that the U.S. should provide weapons "directly to Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters willing to take on ISIS," while in Syria increasing "support to Kurdish forces in the north and moderate rebel groups in other parts of the country."

CIA Director John Brennan said Monday that "I certainly would not consider [Paris] a one-off event." He added, "It's clear to me that ISIL has an external agenda, that they are determined to carry out these types of attacks. I would anticipate that this is not the only operation that ISIL has in the pipeline." This threat to U.S. and international security is both daunting and unacceptable. The United States should commit the forces necessary to defeat and destroy the Islamic State group and end the threat it poses to the world. 


Mission Statement

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.
Read More