The next president’s first priority when it comes to defeating the Islamic State is to avoid making more strategic errors.
The Republican presidential candidates have been the originators of some provocative sound bites in reference to battling the Islamic State (IS—also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), including talk about “carpet bombing,” “waterboarding,” banning Muslims from entering the United States, and creating agencies for the promotion of Judeo-Christian values. With the possibility that one may be elected president in November, their proposed strategies for continuing President Barack Obama’s Operation Inherent Resolve deserve a closer look. After all, this is the campaign that former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described as possibly a “30 year war.”
The race for the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) nomination has dwindled from an impressive starting bench of 17 candidates to just three: Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump. With 17 Republican primaries to go over the next three months, here is an in-depth look at the remaining candidates’ strategies for defeating IS.
Bombing ISIS Back to the Stone Age
Texas Senator Ted Cruz wants to defeat IS, but is not interested in regime change or stability operations in Syria. His priority would be to target the terrorist organization while attempting to allow the Syrian Civil War to play out. The candidate was once adamant that US ground troops should not being involved in an “internecine civil war” in Syria, but later conceded that he would “put boots on the ground if necessary.” Of course, making it a priority to defeat the strongest and most organized group fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is exactly the opposite of not being involved in the Syrian conflict.
When it comes to how IS would be defeated, Cruz infamously said that he was in favor of carpet bombing, but revealed he either did not know or did not care what the term actually meant when he elaborated, essentially describing standard precision close air support within the framework of legal airstrikes. On the one hand, Cruz said he would “pound Raqqa”—the de facto IS capital in Syria—into a “parking lot,” and “bomb ISIS back to the stone age.”
But on the other hand, he said: “You use air power directed—and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” This makes it seem like Cruz is more interested in blustery talk than a new form of law-of-armed-conflict-be-damned, hyper-anti-counterinsurgency policy.
Cruz also supports directly arming the Kurdish Peshmerga—a militia in autonomous Kurdish Iraq—whom he claims can “take out ISIS” if supported by American air power. While they have successfully repelled IS from traditionally Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, Peshmerga forces have avoided fighting too far into Arab areas. It was mainly Shia militias, not the Peshmerga, who liberated the northern Arab city of Tikrit. Cruz seems to think that the Peshmerga would easily roll through both IS-controlled Iraq and Syria, despite the numerous armed and experienced actors in Syria who would make this—at the very least—difficult.
What is clear is that Cruz’s plan to defeat the Islamic State is full of contradictions. Ironically, for someone saying President Obama is not doing enough, Cruz’s plan as he has explained it thus far is only different from the Obama administration’s in that it is less involved and less thought out. From his double talk on US ground forces and the air campaign, to his unrealistic expectations from one militia in the midst of dozens, it is unlikely that Senator Cruz could defeat IS using the meager plan he has described. On his campaign website, his IS strategy is tellingly limited to “calling the enemy by its name—radical Islamic terrorism—and securing the border. Border security is national security.”
One Up on Degrade and Destroy
Ohio Governor John Kasich’s plan for defeating the Islamic State is much more hawkish than Obama’s, adding the intent to “wipe out” to the president’s stated “degrade and destroy” goal, though it is unclear exactly how wiping out is different than destroying. Inspired to action by the Paris attacks of November 2015, Kasich favors an American-led coalition of European and Middle Eastern allies sooner rather than later, but does not support using US forces against Assad.
In addition to an urgent coalition including American ground troops, Kasich, like Obama, is in favor of arming moderate rebels in Syria. He supports arming both Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militias, unlike Cruz. And unlike Obama and Cruz—but like Hillary Clinton—he supports the creation of no-fly zones in Syria.
Kasich’s plan is firmly in the interventionist camp, but he also knows that military action alone will not defeat IS. While he once called for the creation of an agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values,” he later walked back this statement, instead suggesting to “breathe life” into Voice of America, a US government-funded news organization that broadcasts around the world.
However, his vision of a broad military coalition operating in Syria and enforcing no-fly zones while not taking action to depose Assad is nonsensical. Enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria means shooting down Syrian and Russian aircraft should they encroach on this hypothetical airspace. In that event, it would be very unlikely that American ground forces could avoid combat with the Syrian army, and enforcing a no-fly zone against Russian aircraft might lead to a war much bigger than the one against IS.
Additionally, supporting Kurdish militias and moderate Sunni Arab rebels against Assad will one day lead to either confrontation between these actors, or de facto federalization, or even the breakup of Syria. This is not strictly a problem that applies only to Kasich, because the current administration is also betting on multiple horses in this race. But it is meaningless to attempt a strategic distinction between fighting Assad directly and fighting Assad via proxy, especially if American ground troops are readily available in the area of responsibility as targets.
The three candidates’ plans for defeating Islamic State may differ tactically, but they all want to put American troops on the ground in Syria to fight IS while avoiding involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
Ultimately, Kasich’s plan might defeat IS, but it would likely trap the US in an expanded war against multiple actors in the region, including the Syrian government, Russia, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias, Jabhat al-Nusra and so on—something the Obama administration has been attempting to avoid for the last four years. Ironically, while attempting to avoid the regime change blunders of the last decade, Kasich’s war against IS could make President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq look well-planned.
Torture and Oil
If any candidate has said more senseless things about the Middle East than former candidate Ben Carson, it is Donald Trump. Before he was an official candidate, he hinted at knowing a “foolproof” plan to defeat IS, but either he still has not told us, or his definition of foolproof is very loose. Interestingly, in that same interview with Fox News, Trump suggested talks with IS, perhaps the only candidate to do so, but a peaceful resolution has not been brought up since.
Instead, he has said he wants to expand legal authority to torture, ban Muslims from entering the US, enter into a de facto alliance with Assad and Russia as they continue fighting IS in Syria while the US fights the group in Iraq, and use airstrikes and ground forces to seize IS-controlled oil fields and take the oil for the US, using perhaps 30,000 American troops.
Essentially, Trump’s plan is three-pronged: bomb IS, send in ground forces and take its oil fields. He has justified his reluctance to depose Assad by saying the US must avoid fighting two wars at once because it cannot win. While the last decade and a half in the greater Middle East might support his theory, it is important also to understand that wars are not what you want them to be, they are what they are.
Carl von Clausewitz, the revered Prussian military strategist often considered to be the West’s Sun Tzu, wrote deftly: “The first, the grandest, and the most decisive act of judgement which the statesman and general exercises is rightly to understand in this respect the war in which he engages, not to take it for something, or wish to make it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be.”
Put another way, simply because he might choose not to fight Assad does not mean Assad will not fight the US directly or via proxy, especially when his oil fields are occupied by American troops and Exxon.
It is also necessary to stress that there is no research which suggests that Trump’s plan to expand the legal authority to torture IS fighters and his suggestion that their families might also be legal targets would hasten an IS defeat. On the contrary, torture is counterproductive. It encourages false confessions and bad intelligence, promotes battlefield reciprocity, and obviously damages American standing in the world. As such, it is possible that IS emerged partly in response to US torture. Indeed, IS prisoners wear orange jumpsuits to mimic Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and the treatment of prisoners by Americans is frequently mentioned in IS propaganda videos.
As the French learned in the Algerian War, torture is not only counterproductive—it also “corrupts the torturer as much as it breaks the victim.” A quote from a French paratrooper in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 shows the suffering of the torturer himself: “All day, through the floor-boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them … All these men disappeared … I felt myself becoming contaminated. What was more serious, I felt that the horror of all these crimes, our everyday battle, was losing force daily in my mind.”
US interrogation contractor Eric Flair echoed similar sentiments about his time torturing Iraqis in 2004 and 2005: “As an interrogator, torture forced me to set aside my humanity when I went to work. It’s something I’ve never been able to fully pick back up again.”
For someone who supposedly has made veterans’ issues a priority, Trump might consider more deeply the lasting effects of conducting a war in this way on those who serve.
Agree On One Thing
The three candidates’ plans for defeating Islamic State may differ tactically, but they all want to put American troops on the ground in Syria to fight IS while avoiding involvement in the Syrian Civil War. This is the type of half-planning that needlessly endangers Americans troops and exposes the US to blowback.
The power vacuum in Iraq and Syria that facilitated the rise of IS has been attributed by many Republicans to President Obama’s miscalculating the consequences of the Iraq withdrawal and inaction in Syria. But to advocate putting American troops in Syria to fight IS while keeping them neutral against Assad’s regime is not just bad strategy—it is wishful thinking.
Many mistakes were made that led to the Islamic State’s rise, and the consequences of those mistakes have been felt by millions of people from Syria and Iraq to France and Belgium. The next president’s first priority when it comes to defeating the Islamic State is to avoid making more strategic errors—the most important being understanding more than superficially the war Americans will be fighting, perhaps for decades.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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