Defeating Islamic State

Common misconception that the US lost in Iraq and Afghanistan leads to failed policies today.

An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna’s Islamic Youth Council drives along a road in the town of Derna in eastern Libya on October 3, 2014, a day after the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna’s Islamic Youth Council drives along a road in the town of Derna in eastern Libya on October 3, 2014, a day after the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One is hard put to find another cliché that is as counterfactual and damaging to US foreign policy as the widely held belief that US lost the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and hence must avoid another land war in Asia. “No (American) boots on the ground” – even after we learned that the Islamic State (IS) threat is global rather than local. Thus, the highly respected head of The Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, stated, “A US or NATO force wouldn’t fare better in western Iraq and much of Syria than the US force in Iraq or a NATO force did in Afghanistan.” (Haas hinted that some boots might be OK.) Previously, Robert M. Gates stated that any future defense secretary who advises the president to send a large American land force into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined.”
US President Barack Obama commented, “I’m convinced that the United States should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East,” a point he repeated after the Paris attacks.
Actually, the US won both wars easily and quickly, suffering few casualties and low costs, and causing little collateral damage. Both campaigns ended up badly once the US decided to make out of these nations stable, democratic, US-friendly regimes.
The 2003 removal of Saddam’s regime was carried out swiftly, with few casualties and low costs.
By May 1, 2003, 172 coalition servicemen had died. Only $56 billion had been appropriated for Iraq operations by that time. In the nation-building that followed more than 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, and the US costs exceeded $650b. The result: hardly a stable, democratic, US-friendly Iraq. We won the war easily, but lost the peace.
The 2001 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was carried out within a few weeks, with minimal American casualties and low costs. Only 12 US soldiers died in Afghanistan in 2001. The fighting was carried out mainly by the Northern Alliance. The security-related costs for 2002 and 2003 were $535 million. Most of the ensuing casualties and costs took place during the subsequent period in which the counterterrorism (CT) approach was replaced with counterinsurgency (COIN), which includes a strong element of nation building. (It took longer to kill or drive out al-Qaida.) The media depicts the IS fighters as if they were 10 feet tall, spitting fire.
Although these fighters are very brutal, they constitute a small force. Saddam had 400,000 soldiers; 2,000 tanks; 3,700 armored vehicles; 2,200 pieces of artillery; and 300 planes. IS has about 40,000 fighters, a handful of tanks, uses unarmored pickups and has no air force. When IS faced determined and experienced fighters, especially the Kurds, they retreated. IS’s seasoned fighters are being killed off. It now relies increasingly on newcomers. I have some experience with going to war with such a force. In 1948 I commanded a platoon of new arrivals to Israel. Like the new IS recruits, they came from different countries, spoke different languages but not that of the command, and had no knowledge of the terrain. Above all they had no experience in fighting. It was much worse than herding cats.
Unlike the Taliban, IS has no safe haven, a country where it can regroup, reequip and train, nor an ISI-like agency to provide intelligence and resources. Unlike most other such groups, which hide among the civilian population (farmers during the day, fighters at night), IS – which is seeking to build a caliphate – is holding land; hence its forces must reveal themselves, which makes them an easier target. IS is the only group in the Middle East Shi’ites and Sunnis, and all the nations in the region, are keen to destroy. If the US, France and the UK were to put a force on the ground working with the Kurds, IS would not be much of an opponent.
Once IS is defeated, though, the US cannot engage in rebuilding Syria. It should yield some of the territory to the Kurds (and pressure Turkey to not seek to prevent them from gaining autonomy in parts of Iraq and Syria). The US best also pressure the Baghdad government to let the Sunnis defend themselves with their own militias, so they will not support a new IS. The other parties in Syria must be left to work out their differences.
Critics may argue that the IS ideology will survive such a military defeat. However, without a caliphate IS will lose much of its shine. Granted, defeating IS will take more than the 50 non-combatants Obama recently dispatch to region – or his five, $100m. per head Syrian trainees.
The author is a professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Privacy in a Cyber Age, was recently published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2015.