Why you should care
Sound the gong. It’s a new age of warfare.
The crisis with the Islamic State is just beginning. This is the main conclusion to take away from President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation Wednesday night. The next phase will be long, complicated and full of risks — and we have much still to figure out about how, precisely, to achieve success.
This is what the president did: He clearly committed the United States to use air power more aggressively in support of ground forces drawn from the region; to include targets in Syria; and to send 475 U.S. ground troops to advise, train, equip and provide intelligence to Iraqi forces. He also wants to cut the Islamic State’s funding pipeline, and he pledged continued humanitarian assistance to areas suffering from the fighting.
The president also wants to assemble a broad international coalition in support of these aims. He plans, moreover, to involve the United Nations in some way, and welcomes formal congressional support.
Here’s what we should be asking of the president and of his plan:
Is this a strategy, or just an attack?
It’s a start on a strategy. Ideally, a strategy should articulate a longer-term vision of where you want to end up. The president did, of course, make clear that he ultimately wants to destroy the Islamic State, but it’s symptomatic of larger problem — a Middle East that is in total turmoil.
So what should we want to achieve in the Middle East over the longer term? I venture: a regional order of governments and relationships that strengthens the forces of moderation, dampens extremism and heads off the very real possibility of a violent, regionwide conflict between Sunni- and Shiite-dominated nations and groups.
But attacking the Islamic State is a good place to start. It is the organization with the greatest potential to bring about a regionwide conflagration. If, for example, it succeeds in capturing Iraq’s sacred Shiite sites in Karbala and Najaf or gains a foothold in Shiite-dominated Baghdad (all surely among its objectives), the reaction from Shiite groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Shiite nations like Iran will surely be violent. And more bloodshed could draw into the mess Sunni-dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations — conceivably even Jordan, one of America’s strongest allies in the region.
An aggressive move against the Islamic State, then, might actually help to start laying the groundwork for the U.S. to radically impact the region for the better.
Can air power be effective?
Air power isn’t often thought of as the way to handle terrorist groups. We usually default to ground troops. But the Islamic State, unlike most terrorist groups, happens to hold territory — a swath of Iraq and Syria about the size of Delaware — that makes its members utterly unlike other terrorists hiding out in small, dispersed groups or living on the run. Holding territory means the Islamic State has to control infrastructure, organize administrative centers and station equipment — in short, it has to govern.
Which means American air power can more easily find critical nodes to attack that will degrade the Islamic State’s ability to function. This will, of course, require ramping up intelligence collection to understand exactly how the Islamic State functions where it is in control.
But we still may need boots on the ground …
The president’s imprecision regarding boots on the ground is the most problematic part. We might just be able to get by with less-than-massive numbers. We’ll probably have to rely initially on a revived Iraqi Army, the Kurdish peshmerga and — the weakest link — what remains of the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria.
As in the case of Iraq, a small number of U.S. military advisers can go a long way. It’s not a perfect analogy, but take, for instance, Afghanistan in 2001, when small numbers of CIA officers and U.S. Special Forces, working with indigenous anti-Taliban forces, were able to identify and laser-designate critical targets for attack by U.S. air power. Taliban-dominated Kabul fell quickly.
The Islamic State is not the same beast as those we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are models in our past. We can build on these, and they will evolve.
Who will be our allies?
The president and Secretary of State John Kerry have pledged to put together a coalition of as many as 40 countries, but this appears to still be a work in progress. The real question is whether regional heavyweights like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates can be persuaded to take significant roles, aligning themselves against the Islamic State. All have notable military capabilities or borders with the conflict zone; all are opposed to the Islamic State and to the Assad regime in Syria. Getting them fully on board will not be easy; each will have some source of reluctance based on domestic politics, unwillingness to take on risk, or discomfort with unfamiliar or new patterns of international cooperation and alliance.
A trickier question will be Iran; its leaders have spoken out against the Islamic State, but placing forces on the ground in Iran overtly — many are reportedly there clandestinely — would be another matter for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And can we trust Iran? For the U.S., this should be a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
We may eventually have to enter an alliance of strategic importance with Iran — or a marriage of convenience. It will feel uncanny for leaders and citizens in both countries. But an alliance against the Islamic State need not involve concessions on issues where the U.S. and Iran have strong differences, such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Navigating in today’s Middle East will require this sort of pragmatic flexibility.
The Syria Question
The president sidestepped the question of Syria’s Bashar Assad last night. What does this mean? That he hopes — and he is likely correct — that we can deal with the Islamic State and Assad in sequence. We need not ally with Assad to eliminate the Islamic State. It will be hard in today’s Middle East to ever have perfect consistency.
Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
So as this new phase of Middle East policy begins, what can we confidently say about the future? Very little. History shows that when you employ violence — even in the best of causes — you can never be sure what will happen next.
Cold comfort then, that the only certainty we can cling to is that we are entering a period of great uncertainty — one that will require flexibility of mind, resources and tactics in order to come out a clear winner on the other end.