Published in the Orange County Register on September 12, 2014. To access the original article, click here.
In his Wednesday speech on the Islamic State, President Barack Obama explained to the American people why we should be engaged against the group, also known as ISIS.
Leaders have threatened America and its allies and some Americans are getting combat experience with ISIS that they could use against the U.S. when they return home, the president explained. Unfortunately, he did not deliver on the grand strategy he promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this threat.
He said he is launching a counterterrorist strategy. Yet, despite the president naming ISIS as a terrorist group, it is actually an insurgency rather than a terrorist group. ISIS does not engage solely in terrorist attacks to influence another party. Rather, it controls territory within two nation states and is running cities it has captured. For U.S. efforts to succeed, a counterinsurgency strategy is needed, not a counterterrorist one.
He is limiting American military involvement to air operations and the training of indigenous forces. Air operations alone cannot defeat a dedicated enemy, least of all one that uses unconventional warfare tactics.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton tried the same strategy in the Balkans. The Serbs only capitulated, however, after a hundred days when the president upped the ante and announced he might introduce ground forces after all.
Obama’s examples of American success in using air power to stop terrorism are Yemen and Somalia. He could not have picked worse examples. Both states lack a real central government, both suffer major internal insurgencies, both are considered failed states.
Neither the United States nor its allies can afford failed states in the heart of the Middle East.
In Iraq, the U.S. military team currently in Baghdad estimates that 30 to 50 percent of the Iraqi armed forces are unable to fight, or have ceased to exist.
The Iraqi military’s refusal to defend Mosul against the Islamic State speaks for itself.
In Syria, the president plans to rely on the Syrian opposition to defeat ISIS. The group is the only serious military force opposing the government of Bashar al-Assad, and the U.S. government is committed to the defeat of that regime. The president is silent on the contradictory nature of the policy he has outlined. There is also a question as to the effectiveness of the non-ISIS opposition.
The U.S. has a checkered history of building indigenous forces.
In the 1950s and 1960s at the School of the Americas, the U.S. Army trained its Latin counterparts in security operations.
The result was the overthrow of a number of democracies throughout South America by the American-trained officers.
In the 1980s the U.S. trained fighters to defeat Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The result was the creation of groups throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan who are aligned with the Taliban and al-Qaida. The U.S. has spent millions over the past decade training the Iraqi military – a military that cannot or will not fight ISIS.
The president makes much over his efforts to build a coalition, which will include Arab partners. He makes no mention of the largest regional power: non-Arab Iran.
As the U.S. learned in its Iraq war, the Persians have the ability to make or break governments and insurgencies in the area. Why is there no place at the table, then, for this regional heavy weight. As for the coalition he is building, what do they plan to do?
Insurgencies have been won and lost around the world. The deciding factor in who wins the military struggle is ultimately who wins the support of the inhabitants. This requires more than dropping bombs from the sky – it requires engaging in the creation of civil societies that can meet the needs of the people.
Half measures designed to be all things to all people are not a strategy for success, but for long-term failure.
James J. Coyle is the Director of Global Education at Chapman University, and the executive director of the Caspian Research Institute, an online think tank.