Why you should care
As President Obama issues a call to arms and orders airstrikes against the Islamic State group, John McLaughlin outlines the road ahead.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
With the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes that began this week on Islamic State targets in Syria, President Obama took the most decisive step so far in the strategy he laid out on Sept. 10 to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group. Crossing this threshold throws into high gear what most administration spokespeople are characterizing as a years-long effort against terrorists in the Middle East.
It also heralds a series of stiff challenges for the many months ahead. Here are five:
Mitigating Maliki’s Wrongs
This is the fragile foundation on which just about everything else rests. Iraqi politicians’ decision on Aug. 10 to dump the highly divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the price for the U.S. military support against the Islamic State group that we’ve seen over the last several weeks.
But the process of approving an Iraqi government is slow and contentious. The new coalition is moving in the right direction: It seems to be reversing the favoritism Maliki showed toward Shia, and it’s bringing more heretofore-disaffected Kurds and Sunnis into the mix. But it will not establish credibility with Sunnis unless a Sunni gets one of the key ministries: defense or interior. The parliament on Sept. 16 rejected Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s nominees for these posts, one of whom was a Sunni.
If this process breaks down, it will knock a key prop out from under U.S. strategy, which aims to demonstrate to Sunnis in particular that their interests are best served by supporting the Iraqi government and opposing the Islamic State group. And without a strong Iraqi government, it will be hard to gain and keep the battlefield initiative in the areas controlled by the Islamic State group.
But Can We All Get Along?
The U.S. has never had to sustain a military coalition of Middle Eastern and Western nations — and keep it actively fighting — for more than a short time. The coalition assembled by the U.S. for the first Gulf War in 1990 was militarily active for just a few weeks, and of the 42 countries in the coalition supporting Afghanistan, only three come from this region: Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. All of the countries in the current coalition are normally at odds on other issues. They will be feeling their way and constantly re-evaluating their interests.
Something will go wrong — it always does in war — and some coalition members will come under domestic pressure to pull out. This said, the coalition is a promising achievement. If it endures, it not only could help defeat the Islamic State group, but also could morph into something the region has never had: an effective multilateral security organization that could bring a measure of stability to the Middle East. This is a long shot, but something to which the U.S. should aspire.
U.S. officials are talking in terms of a year or more to select, train and deploy into Syria about 5,000 new anti-Islamic State fighters chosen from within the region — and in terms of months to accomplish other parts of the strategy.
But the enemy will not stand still in the meantime. If these militants are like all other successful terrorist groups, they will adjust tactics and adapt — to everything from our air tactics to our intelligence strategies. Air war will get harder as they integrate more with populations, disperse their armaments and tighten their communications, making it harder to follow them and to develop targets vulnerable to our precision air weapons.
Except for the most recent airstrikes, the Islamic State militants so far are moving faster and showing more flexibility than anyone opposing them. Destroying them will oblige us to pick up the pace and shift gears constantly. At our current pace and force levels, it is hard to imagine retaking one of the major Iraqi cities from the Islamic State group in less than four to six months.
One major event could dramatically change the nature of the conflict, just as the North Vietnamese surprise Tet Offensive in 1968 dealt a psychological blow to the U.S. military and the American public. We never recovered.
Unless the air campaign continuously disrupts the Islamic State militants, it is not inconceivable that the group could organize a push into Baghdad, take a Shia holy city such as Karbala or Najaf or burst across the Jordanian border or into Saudi Arabia toward the holy city of Mecca. Any of these would shift the stakes and the tempo of the fight in ways that would test the coalition to the max and take the violence in unpredictable directions.
Rebooting the Campaign
Sooner or later, we will have to come to grips with America’s role in the ground component of this conflict.
The administration needs a more nuanced formulation than the constant refrain of “no American boots on the ground.” For one thing, it sends the wrong signal in this part of the world, where leaders already question U.S. resolve. Moreover, as the air war begins to run out of worthy targets, as it almost certainly will, the momentum will shift to ground action, and the U.S. will feel increased pressure to ensure the success of indigenous forces it has trained.
So it is almost certain that we will see an increase beyond the nearly 500 additional troops the president authorized on Sept. 10. Obviously, any deployments would fall well short of our previous Iraq commitments, and the military would take advisory roles, primarily. But that typically requires forward deployment with local forces, and if that happens, it will make sense to hold in reserve a couple of combat brigades suitably equipped with armor and air support.
It is clearly too soon to know specific requirements, but American “boots” of some sort and in some numbers are close to inevitable.
So as our political leaders speak and our military acts in the months ahead, it will be important to keep in mind the wise words of the classic 19th-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz: “Everything in war is simple. But the simplest thing in war is very difficult.”