Fighting the Islamic State: The case for boots on the ground

 

Patrick Visser is a second year, American-Dutch War Studies Student, voted class most likely to stage a coup two years running”. He loves wars: big wars, small wars, can’t get enough of ’em. After writing this article he will undoubtedly be called a neoconservative.

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It is indicative of how scarred the western psyche has been by the “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan that the simplest, most effective way of ending the Islamic State has been dismissed out of hand by the public, decision makers and virtually all serious commentators. The idea of putting “boots on the ground” is not something that is looked at in terms of its costs and benefits, but with a shudder, as something that is unthinkable. This is not good enough. When dealing with a terror as malignant as the Islamic State all options must be considered, especially as boots on the ground may be the only way of ending the conflict quickly and defeating their ideology.

When I propose boots on the ground, I am not talking about small scale special forces units to carry out raids and call in airstrikes as we are seeing now, these are a necessary part of the existing strategy, but too few in number to make a real difference. Nor am I talking about Lindsey Graham’s insane plan to create safe zones with up to 20,000 US troops,[1] which would expose our soldiers to heavy casualties, while doing little to actually solve the problem. I am arguing for a massive, multi-divisional deployment of overwhelming force on the lines of the 2003 march to Baghdad, to conduct a shock and awe blitzkrieg with the express purpose of defeating and conquering the Islamic State. Actual numbers should be determined by military necessity, not political convenience and while this force would necessarily be led the Americans, all parties, including the Russians, Iranians and all the Arab states, should be invited to participate. Around 100,000 men is a reasonable estimate, it could be done with less but this would expose our troops to unnecessary risks.

What makes this different to the disaster that was the 2003 Iraq War? Simply put, time. This force would not be expected to engage in nation building or stay in the country once it has destroyed the Islamic State, the goal is not to transform Iraq and Syria into nice places to live but to remove the threat to ourselves and the affront to humanity that is the Islamic State.

What makes IS a far more serious threat than its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq is its control of territory. It might not be Islamic, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that it is functioning as a state, with a government, a well-equipped army, a taxable and conscriptable population, and a booming economy.[2] It is terrorism on an industrial scale, an order of magnitude removed from the pinprick attacks of older terrorist groups. Fortunately, Western militaries are very very good at breaking states. Nobody does conventional war as well as we do- just ask Saddam. The military feasibility of the conquest of the Islamic State is not in question, and if the 2003 War is anything to go by it could be completed in under 6 weeks with fewer than 300 KIA.[3]

How does this solve the underlying problems in Iraq and Syria? It doesn’t, but it is not meant to. The immediate, domineering problem of fighting IS has meant that none of the underlying problems could be faced anyway- you can’t bring together Iraq’s Sunni’s and Shia in an inclusive government while al-Anbar province is under IS rule. What the defeat of the Islamic state would do is buy time and breathing space to resolve these problems, preferably in conjunction with a settlement in Syria (in which it must now be accepted that Assad must play a role). Once IS loses Raqqa, Mosul and its other population centres, it won’t suddenly cease to exist and it is sure to retreat into the desert and revert to its previous role as a “normal” terrorist group and insurgency, but merely forcing this is already a major and important victory, as without the resources of a state it is a far less menacing threat, both regionally and abroad.

The conquest of IS’s territory would shatter the legitimacy the group has achieved by declaring itself the new caliphate, as for a caliphate to be recognised under Islamic law it must be able to enforce Sharia over the temporal sphere.[4] Indeed, al-Baghdadi’s genius is that he realised people are far more willing to sacrifice for the here and now, rather than Bin Laden’s hazy dream of a world caliphate in the distant future, generations away.[5] Taking this away from the Islamic State removes its most important recruiting tool and sets the jihadist cause back years. It is all well and good to go to Iraq or Syria when you feel you have personal agency in bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth, with the added bonus of getting 30-or-so Yazidi slave wives, it is quite another thing to go to fight and die for a losing cause with the entire might of the world’s most powerful army raining down on you.

The Islamic State’s ideology also creates huge vulnerabilities to Western firepower. According to their doctrine, they see the West as the “new Rome” with which they eagerly await a showdown alluded to in the Hadith on “the plains of Daqib” a town in northern Syria that IS was especially delighted to bring under it rule.[6] In a larger sense, they cannot simply melt into the countryside like most insurgencies, as this would throw away the legitimacy they are so painstakingly trying to build up. They are ideologically mandated to test their mettle against our metal. Let’s see how that works out for them. As they are forced to stand and fight, IS militants will be exposed to our overwhelming firepower and slaughtered en masse, not only is this extremely satisfying from a moral standpoint, it will inhibit the group’s ability to bounce back after it is defeated. In Afghanistan in 2001, after the Taliban was forced to concentrate to resist the advance of the Northern Alliance and then smashed by Western firepower, it took so heavy casualties that it could not constitute a major threat to the government again until 2006. In the same war, al-Qaeda never fully recovered from losing its training camps and the majority of its fighters.[7] It is true that attrition, the infamous “body count” cannot alone solve the problems of terrorism, but it does buy time, time in which other actors can work to resolve those problems.

It is often argued that the Islamic State is able to function because it has at least the tacit support of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni population and that once the US leaves, IS will be able to just walk back into the areas it previously controlled. I counter that in the aftermath of a US campaign IS will not have enough fighters left to “bounce back” and would point out that they managed to take al-Anbar Province and Mosul last year, not because the wider Sunni population rose up and drove out the Iraqi government, but because IS fighter beat the embarrassingly bad Iraqi army on the field of battle and then imposed control on the Sunni population. The Islamic State is deeply unpopular in most of the areas it rules and is only able to impose control through fear, not because its citizens have bought into the message of hate that it spouts.[8] For a long term solution we must look to one of the most successful initiatives of the Iraq War- the al-Anbar Awakening, where local Sunni militias, supported by the US and (reluctant) by the central government were able to decisively defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq between 2007 and 2011.[9] Indeed the single greatest enabler for the rise of the Islamic State was the sectarian Maliki governments reckless disbanding of these militias, that left the Iraqi Sunnis unable to defend themselves when AQI (now IS) recuperated.[10] This must be reversed in the aftermath of a successful US led campaign for the victory to last.

Why does the conquest of the Islamic State require American troops? Cannot the same be done with local actors, supported by US airpower, which is the thrust of the existing strategy? Will not US intervention just stir up further anti-western sentiment and help the Islamic State? These are all valid questions, but I would argue that there is no local actor that can do the job. The Iraqi Army is a bad joke, and too dependent on Iranian assistance, which delegitimises it in the eyes of Iraq’s Sunnis; The Kurds are good fighters, but there are not enough of them and they are mostly and understandably focused on protecting Kurdish interests, not the stability of the wider region; The Syrian resistance is a non-factor; and Assad is overstretched and undermanned, and entirely concerned with his own survival. While the US is not popular, it is at least trusted by all factions not to started committing genocide.[11] Indeed, IS has aroused an extraordinarily large coalition against itself, all of whom would be served by US intervention. The idea that Iraqi’s will suddenly start fighting the US, against their own interests, requires a very low opinion of their intelligence- an opinion that I do not share. All the more so as it will be made clear from the outset that the intervention has a strict time limit and once IS is conquered the territory is to be returned forthwith to Iraqi and Syrian control. Charges such as “imperialism” will be thrown around, as they always are, but they are unlikely to gain much traction.

It is possible, likely even, that IS will eventually be ground into dust under the current strategy, the diverse forces arrayed against them are too large to be resisted over the long run. The problem with this is, firstly, that it will take too long, time in which IS can continue its atrocities and carry out attacks in the West, and also that the moral impact of a grinding defeat, with IS able to portray itself as holding off the whole world and fighters able to escape back home to carry out Paris style rampages, is far less devastating to their cause that a short, sharp disaster, where their kingdom is brought crashing down around them in a matter of weeks, their bravest fighters killed in droves and their ideology revealed to be no match for the forces of civilisation. Such a defeat would undermine the morale of Jihadi groups across the world and be a major coup in the global war on terror.

What about the idea that such a campaign would set a precedent? That having done it once we would have to do the same thing for the next Islamic State, and the one after? I would argue that the precedent that we will smash unmitigated evil wherever it rears its ugly head is a good one, both in terms of common morality and in furthering international stability. Especially as the potential for working multilaterally with traditional adversaries such as Russia exists against the Islamic State and such action could be legitimised by the UN Security Council. In any case, precedent is a pretty weak argument to rest opposition on as there is no rule that you have to act in the future as you did in the past, and as people have very short memories when it comes to foreign policy.

In all honesty, the plan I have proposed is not going to happen. We are war weary after the decade long struggle since 9/11 and for most people IS is just something unpleasant we hear about on the nightly news whenever they launch an attack (on the west- their daily massacres in Iraq and Syria barely register) or behead an aid worker. This is something to be mourned, we have become gun-shy, a legacy of our reckless intervention in Iraq. This caution is commendable when it stops us from blundering into disastrous foreign policy adventures, but is a tragedy when it blinds us to an evil that we have the power to put an end to. I will leave you with a quote from Spiderman “with great power comes great responsibility”. We have great power, but we have shirked our responsibility. IS wants to be considered a state and play at conventional war. Fine. Bring it.

 

[1] Jenifer Rubin Sen. Lindsey Graham offers a new ‘construct’ to defeat the Islamic State, The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2015/11/17/sen-lindsey-graham-offers-a-new-construct-to-defeat-the-islamic-state/

[2] Helen Lock, How Isis became the wealthiest terror group in history, The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/how-isis-became-the-wealthiest-terror-group-in-history-9732750.html

[3] There is reason to believe that a campaign against the Islamic state would be even easier, as they lack many of Saddam’s heavy weapons and armour, have few men under arms and are geographically smaller.

[4] Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[5] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p.193-195

[6] http://searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=041&translator=2&start=0&number=6924; Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[7] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p.424-428

[8] Munqith al-Dagher, How Iraqi Sunnis really feel about the Islamic State, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/24/how-iraqi-sunnis-really-feel-about-the-islamic-state/

[9] Lt Col Michael Silverman, Awakening Victory, the entirety of

[10] Toby Dodge, Iraq: From War to a new authoritarianism, p99-101

[11] Dr Steven Biddle, Iraq After the Surge, http://keats.kcl.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/1483392/mod_resource/content/1/Biddle%20Testimony%20-%20Iraq%20after%20the%20Surge.pdf

 

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