A counter-insurgency expert who was a top-level U.S. military adviser in Iraq said the United States will need boots on the ground in the Middle East to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Other experts say the Obama administration’s response has ranged from “unsuccessful” to “OK” in the battle to destroy the group that claimed responsibility for bloody terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday that killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more.
President Barack Obama said Monday that the U.S. will intensify the strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS, noting military and diplomatic efforts to build alliances in the fight against the extremist group that also has been linked to attacks in Beirut and downing a Russian airliner in Egypt.
“… The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work,” the president said at a news conference.
Sending thousands of U.S. ground troops to combat ISIS, however, isn’t on the table because “if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, (the terrorist groups) resurface, unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”
Some aren’t convinced the U.S. strategy is the right course.
“I think the attacks in Paris have made it pretty clear that containment as a strategy has failed,” said Peter R. Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who was executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and who played a key role in the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy in that war.
“The president says the goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS and yet the amount of resources that he’s applied and the strategy that he’s fashioned is not sufficient to get the job done,” said Mansoor, an Ohio State University military history professor and founding director of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
“I think before the terrorists strike again, perhaps in the United States, we need to get serious about actually destroying ISIS in its homeland in Syria and Iraq and to put U.S. and European troops on the ground if it’s necessary to accomplish that goal,” he said, citing the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan as an example.
Mansoor said the United States should work to build an Arab peacekeeping force to take over once ISIS is eliminated and provide aid to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria in a “much more robust fashion.”
“The president says that any call to send ground troops in to the Middle East to destroy Syria runs into the problem of what we do in the aftermath,” Mansoor said. “But the fact is his administration isn’t even trying to fashion a solution to the governance of Syria and Iraq, the area that ISIS controls in those countries in the aftermath of any major combat operation.
“This administration just isn’t serious about the war in the Middle East and it just wants to pass it along to the next administration having done almost nothing to end it.”
Ending the conflict in Syria may mean reaching a diplomatic political solution with Russia and Iran, he added.
“By changing the military calculus on the ground, we can gain leverage needed to do that,” he said. “Right now, we have none.”
U.S. response ‘OK’
Glen Duerr, Cedarville University assistant professor of international studies, said the U.S. response on the military front has been “OK,” noting American forces have accounted for most airstrikes against ISIS targets.
“I think the United States has taken a reasonable leading role, but probably should be doing more,” he said.
Stability won’t be gained until the United States works to decentralize power in Iraq and Syria to the local level, he said.
That may mean working with Russia, a longtime Syrian ally bombing targets in the country. It also might mean cutting a deal to divide Syria between its president, Bashar al-Assad in the west, and a new, more representative government of the people in the east.
“In essence, the U.S. and Russia would save face,” he said.
The United States had been “tepid” in backing rebel forces and missed an opportunity for change when pro-democracy protests arose in Aleppo, he said.
“If another window opens, I think the United States needs to walk through it,” Duerr said.
The Paris attacks will lead to more intelligence-sharing among countries and more money to fight terrorism, said Donna Schlagheck, a retired Wright State University political science professor who wrote a textbook on terrorism.
NATO may lead a call for a United Nations resolution to authorize the use of force against the Islamic State and attempt to bring together the UN Security Council’s permanent members: the United States, Russia, China, France and Great Britain, she said.
“They all have an interest in putting together a collaborative effort,” she said. ”This may be some of the good that comes out of the horror of last Friday night.”
The U.S.-led coalition to drive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 could be a model, she said.
“Before we even talk about boots on the ground, I think the American public is going to demand a very, very broad effort, not a U.S.-led effort,” she said.
“Destroying ISIS right now is a very short to mid-term goal,” she said. “The issues that have given rise to ISIS and al-Qaida before it are going to require probably decades of work to try to resolve this resort to political extremism across national boundaries.”
ISIS has an ambition to create a caliphate carved out of Iraq and Syria, based on what she described as an Ottoman Empire form of rule, disconnected in time and modern circumstances, she said.
“I think that the ISIS model is not what the vast majority of people in the region want, but it’s the only alternative offered to the people,” she said. “There’s massive social level pressure for a change in a variety of movements but the authoritarian regimes are entrenched.
“You cannot export democracy,” she said. “We’ve learned that the hard way. But you can encourage them to import democracy.”
The United States needs a coalition of ground troops to battle ISIS, but the political will hasn’t materialized, said Vaughn Shannon, a Wright State assistant professor of political science who specializes in Middle East and terrorism studies and American foreign policy.
ISIS, he said, is “a group of 30,000 guys being left to pretend they’re a country and plot attacks, and apparently bombing is doing nothing to stop that.”
“Nobody likes ISIS, and yet they keep prevailing because of a lack of political will to commit to ground forces by the major powers,” Shannon said.
A negotiated settlement that forces Assad to relinquish power in Syria while keeping the Syrian government in place may be a way to end that country’s civil war, he said.
“I think acknowledging that is one of the prices to pay, otherwise we’re going to be battling Assad, ISIS and Russia,” he said.
He also said the United States needs to work with Arab and Muslim countries and not treat the battle as the West versus Islamic nations.
“Most Muslims oppose ISIS, most Muslims are victims of ISIS, and we need to make sure that message gets out,” he said. “The Islamic and Arab world should be seen as coalition partners and not one big enemy.”
Mark Ensalaco, University of Dayton director of human rights research, noted that the complexity of the situation is difficult to address. Defeating the Islamic State could strength Iran in the region and remove an enemy of Assad, among other outcomes.
“The choices are so difficult there’s not a good choice,” he said. “There’s only bad choices.”
He advocates more humanitarian relief. And while Ensalaco said he supports putting U.S. special forces on the ground, he would not back sending a large number of U.S. ground troops without a coalition of nations with them and a “very clear sense” of plans for an “end state,” or final outcome that is not just an exit strategy.
“We don’t know what that is going to look like,” he said.