Politics & Policy

‘Arab Boots on the Ground’ and Other Bad Ideas that Won’t Beat ISIS

Iraqi Army soldiers train at the Besmaya Range Complex, March 2015. (Sergeant Deja Borden)
Defeating the Islamist militia is a must, but there are no shortcuts or easy solutions.

In the aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino, the GOP primary campaign is plagued by a curious dynamic. The candidates are in open competition to offer the toughest rhetoric against ISIS, but at the same time unwilling to offer truly tough and effective policies. Instead, they’re reduced to lobbing out ideas that do little more than give Republican-primary voters false hope — that there’s a shortcut to defeating ISIS.

What follows is a non-exhaustive list of the worst of the shortcuts, phrases that, if repeated, should raise red flags for their obvious strategic flaws:

We will fight with “Arab boots on the ground.” This is a favorite phrase of Rand Paul’s. He wants to delegate virtually the entire fight to Middle Eastern armies, and most of the other candidates also express a desire to rely heavily on Sunni Arab troops, perhaps “stiffened” by some small number of American special forces. Yet let’s not forget that “Arab boots on the ground” are exactly the boots that hightailed it away from ISIS last year. And while small numbers of U.S. troops can indeed help Arab forces fight more effectively, that’s often only after years of training and consistent embeds.

And where exactly will we get these effective Sunni Arab troops to fight in Iraq and Syria? (Hint: It won’t be from Saudi Arabia.) The Iraqi army is dominated by Shiites; the fight in northern Iraq and northern Syria is led by Kurds; and much of Sunni Iraq is presently held by ISIS. Let’s not forget that the Sunni “Awakening” in the Surge happened when American troops were present in large numbers and did the lion’s share of the truly hard fighting. Waiting for an effective, allied Sunni fighting force means waiting indefinitely.

RELATED: To Defeat ISIS, Put Boots on the Ground

We will “carpet-bomb” ISIS “into oblivion.” This is the Ted Cruz position, and it feeds the mistaken impression that bombs will win this war. Cruz is exactly correct that the Obama administration’s aerial campaign has been ineffective, but carpet-bombing won’t win this war. True carpet-bombing succeeds mainly in killing civilians while leaving the actual combatants alive, and ISIS is far too dispersed to do what Cruz said in the most recent debate and “carpet-bomb where ISIS is . . . the location of its troops.” We can and should dramatically ramp up our aerial attacks and remove the absurd rules of engagement that prevent American pilots from attacking legitimate military targets, but we can’t short-circuit the need for an actual, substantial ground force to take and hold territory.

#share#“You have to take out their families.” Trump’s position is not only illegal and immoral, it’s ineffective and impossible. Try giving an order to a U.S. sniper to shoot and kill a mom and her young children as they walk to school. Try telling Rangers to mow down a family in their apartment or instructing a pilot to hit a family sedan with a missile. They won’t do it. It’s not going to happen. It’s one thing to kill civilians when attacking a lawful military target — that’s war. It’s another thing entirely to track down terrorists’ families and “take them out.” If families are collaborators, then deal with them accordingly, but “taking out” families doesn’t retake Mosul, it won’t deny ISIS its safe havens, and it won’t deter apocalyptic jihadist terrorists from planning and executing attacks.

RELATED: The Pentagon’s ISIS Strategy, By Its Own Accouting, Is a Mess

“Impose a no-fly zone over Syria.” Yes, I understand that a no-fly zone isn’t aimed at ISIS but rather at Assad and Russia, but that’s part of the problem. Not only does a no-fly zone provoke an armed confrontation with Russia (something Chris Christie actually seems to want), but for the foreseeable future, weakening Assad means strengthening the jihadist militias that dominate the opposition. Air power has helped Assad cling to his zones of control and has blocked the jihadists from sweeping aside his remaining forces. Clearing the skies of Russian and Syrian planes would dramatically empower the opposition — and not just our allies.

“Arm the Kurds.” Make no mistake, arming the Kurds is a necessity — a very good idea in a list of bad ideas. It was nothing short of a travesty that the Peshmerga had been left so vulnerable at the start of the ISIS blitz in 2014. But arming the Kurds won’t defeat ISIS, and it’s a bad idea to push the Peshmerga far outside Kurdistan. The Kurds — for many good reasons — will not venture far from Kurdish-held territory, and asking a Kurdish army to sweep aside ISIS is both counterproductive on the ground and ultimately terrible for the Kurds. They would find themselves the armed occupiers (even temporarily) of Sunni territory, subject to inevitable and vicious counterattacks. Yes, arm the Kurds, but don’t believe that the Kurds are the answer.

#related#Rather than argue that any given tactic is the magic bullet against ISIS, the focus should be on an effective strategy — and then vowing to use the force necessary to implement that strategy. This would be the opposite of the Obama administration’s approach. Obama leads with limitations — no substantial boots on the ground, substantial limits on the use of force, substantial limitations on arming allies — and then asks for victory. A true commander-in-chief demands victory and then provides the force and enables the strategy that makes victory possible.

Against an enemy as motivated as ISIS — inspiring millions with the potent combination of a millennium-old theological argument and stunning battlefield victories — we must resist the temptation to believe that victory will be easy or cheap. Obama has been weak, but demonstrating strength isn’t like flipping a switch from defeat to victory. Strength is a prerequisite for victory, but strength alone won’t defeat ISIS, especially if it’s deployed in service of bad ideas.


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