The Spy Who Told Me: Can We Handle the Truth About the Islamic State? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
The FSA united of several brigades with the four kurdish parties from Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria fight against ISIS in Kobane, on November 3, 2014
SourceJacob Simkin/Corbis


Because these choices are forcing themselves on us.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

It’s been two months to the day since President Barack Obama announced an accelerated attack against the so-called Islamic State. So what are the hard realities we’re dealing with? And, given that U.S. officials say it could take up to a year to train and field a ground force to combat the Islamic State in Syria, where will we stand a year from now?

A number of harsh realities are staring us in the face, each a reminder of the agonizing choices ahead:

We’ll have to work with sworn enemies. As the preeminent Shia state in the region, Iran is as interested in neutralizing the Islamic State as the U.S., if not more so. And while Obama has just authorized 1,500 more U.S. “boots on the ground,” Iranian boots have been tromping through Iraq for a long time. Wearing them are the Iranian Special Ops and the Iran-linked Lebanese Hezbollah, who’ve both contributed to the Iraqi Army’s few successes.

It’s not unreasonable to assume the Islamic State will have upwards of 40,000 troops in Syria and Iraq. 

Plus, Tehran recently scored a victory: The Iraqi Parliament filled the sensitive Interior Ministry Cabinet job with a Shiite politician from the Badr Brigade. (That brigade is a militia group trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.) Which means new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may have just squandered the goodwill he needs from Iraq’s Sunnis; those Sunnis’ support for al-Abadi’s regime is essential to the government’s success and, by extension, to the success of the Iraq army.

British troops from the Second Battalion Yorkshire Regiment train Kurdish peshmerga on new machine guns.

British troops from the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment train Kurdish peshmerga on new machine guns.

Source Sebastian Meyer/Corbis

Iran clearly opposes our broader regional goals. But a recent report in the Wall Street Journal that Obama has written to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could mean there is interest in trying to coordinate anti-Islamic State activity with Tehran, at least in a narrow way. The question is not whether Iran is our friend but rather whether we can do more damage to the Islamic State in parallel or in coordination — and whether such coordination is achievable without sacrificing other goals we have in the region. 

Russia matters, like it or not. The same goes for Russia. President Vladimir Putin is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s other principal ally, and Russia has been a critical source of economic assistance and military supplies for Syria. Whatever the ultimate fate of the Assad regime, Russia’s leverage with it will be pivotal.            

Assad’s grip on power is tightening. Every difficult choice in the Middle East now has an, if not equal, then at least opposite reaction. Put simply: degrading the Islamic State helps Syria’s Assad. America keeps postponing dealing with Assad, but our future plans to handle him grow murkier as Assad and the Islamic State alike continue to mow through moderate opposition forces. The U.S wants to train 5,000 or so indigenous and local forces — who we hope can stand up to Assad and the Islamic State alike — but the training still isn’t off the ground, and we don’t yet know if the forces will have the fighting will to match the Islamic State’s ferocity. 


We’ll have to make hard choices in Syria.  Do we live with Assad? Launch a military campaign against the regime? Try brokering a new government through a combination of military and diplomatic pressure, the latter depending to some degree on Russian and Iranian leverage? Each of these comes with big downsides but none greater than those that come with indecision — which chiefly results in Assad increasing his staying power.    

The beast is getting bigger. The Islamic State keeps growing every day. The Washington Post recently reported American officials saying more than 1,000 foreign fighters a month were continuing to pour into Syria for the Islamic State. There’s no way to know whether this will ebb or grow, but there’s also no sign that the Islamic State’s recruiting appeal is diminishing. Should the flow remain steady, the Islamic State will have 12,000 more fighters a year from now in addition to the 20,000 or 30,000 they now command. Even allowing for combat losses, it’s not unreasonable to assume it will have upwards of 40,000 troops in Syria and Iraq at this point in 2015. Whereas if we’re lucky, we’ll have around 5,000 hopefully capable forces working against them in Syria. Do the math.  

We will not reclaim the Islamic State territory soon. Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga have scored some tactical successes against the Islamic State but a coalition offensive to retake a major city such as Mosul or Fallujah is probably months away, if not a year.

Airpower won’t be enough. Yes, the air campaign is still in early days — and no one has oversold it. Over time, airpower may wear down the Islamic State and could take out some key leaders, as may have occurred in strikes last Friday. So far it hasn’t stalled their advances, except perhaps in the Syrian border town of Kobani. 

These choices will stare us in the face.

The average daily number of coalition strikes is well below that of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even the NATO bombing campaign in the 1990s against the Milosevic regime in Serbia. Intelligence requirements are stringent in a bombing campaign that seeks to avoid civilian casualties. Any campaign has to balance the civilian question against taking down a hybrid force with both conventional and insurgency traits — a force that hides both its equipment and its soldiers among the populace. Gathering intelligence will be even tougher due to the absence of an American ground force and the enhanced communications security the Islamic State now possesses.     

Boots on the ground will multiply. As the air campaign has matured and as the targets on the ground become harder to locate, America has begun to accede to the need for forward forces on the ground. At minimum, pressure will increase within the U.S. military and perhaps in the new Congress to deploy forward observers for targeting, and more advisers to help direct Iraqi forces. We say these will not be combat troops, but my time in the Vietnam War showed me how hard it is to maintain that distinction when the bullets start flying.

So how will we deal with all of this? Will we speed up the rebuilding of the Iraqi Army (whose success depends largely on a so-far fragile political consensus in Baghdad)? Should we train indigenous fighters faster, in larger numbers? Ought we train and better arm the Kurdish peshmerga, Iraq’s most cohesive and effective fighting force? Increase the U.S. ground commitment? Eventually, we will almost certainly have to do all of these, in some measure. In the meantime, these choices will stare us in the face.

All of our choices, moreover, are interlinked. Stemming the recruiting appeal and fighting strength of the Islamic State, for example, probably requires diminishing its status by a major reversal of its gains on the ground — which in turn raises the military, diplomatic and training dilemmas just discussed.

And though it’s tempting to work through the problem one piece at a time, tackling these issues piecemeal, failing to bring the pieces together in a comprehensive strategy, risks what Benjamin Disraeli called the most fatal strategic error: “trying to jump a chasm in two leaps.” 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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