By Jason Stanford
After huddling with his war council in Kuwait, Defense Secretary Ash Carter says we’ve got the “ingredients of the strategy” to achieve a “lasting defeat” over ISIS. Some Senate Republicans claim that ISIS is going to kill us all in our sleep even as the U.S.-led coalition has the Islamic State forces playing defense for a change, but killing bad guys is the relatively easy part. As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hard part is to win a peace that can last, and the strategy Carter outlined last week seems like a smart way to go about that.
To hear the President’s political opponents tell it, Barack Obama is naively whistling past the battlefield. Sen. Tom Cotton, a combat veteran who should know better, said, “Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico” and “could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here.”
Said Sen. Lindsey Graham, we need to launch a full-scale ground war against the Islamic State “before we all get killed back here at home.” And then, lest anyone think he had peaked too soon, he said ISIS “will open the gates of Hell to spill out on the world.”
And Sen. John McCain, who in 2013 said, “We should arm ISIS,” now says we now need American “boots on the ground.”
These guys might understand metaphors, but they clearly don’t understand how to beat ISIS and bring stability to the region. We’ll do it with allies, advisers, and airstrikes. Only solid governments and professional militaries in the Arab states will be able to win the war on the battlefield as well as the war for hearts and minds.
Carter made clear in Kuwait that a “lasting defeat” of ISIS requires NATO countries and nearby allies to play a bigger role. Unless we want to make Iraq the 51st state, we need to strengthen local militaries and political structures. This can’t look like Islam versus the Great Satan. This war doesn’t work if it looks like the U.S. is invading their country. We tried that. It literally blew up in our faces, over and over and over again.
This war needs to pit civilization against ISIS. Committing ground forces to Iraq and Syria wouldn’t just be politically untenable. Doing so would come across like a bad sequel to a movie that never should have been made in the first place.
So far, allied militaries are making progress. Jordanian pilots have carried out 56 airstrikes in Syria. Egyptian pilots struck back after the deaths of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by hitting 10 targets in Libya. Kurdish forces have retaken territory and cut off supply lines running into Mosul. Even the much-mocked Iraqi Security Forces are reclaiming battlefield. And these are armies that can stay after we eventually leave.
As much as McCain likes the phrase “boots on the ground,” perhaps now is a good time to retire that tired cliche. We have a few thousand military advisers on the ground. Reportedly, they wear boots. They can provide expertise and leadership for allied forces without confirming ISIS’ narrative that they are defending Islam from the West.
That doesn’t mean we’re not going to bomb the bejesus out of them. Central Command reports the U.S. has killed 6,000 ISIS fighters, and leaving them only as many as 31,500 according to intelligence reports. And airstrikes have walloped oil production controlled by ISIS, cutting their income from $2.4 million a day last summer to $750,000 at last count.
But as State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “We can not kill our way out of this war.” We’re going to have to win the message war and leave behind countries with viable economies and stable governments. We can’t just “take ‘em out” without considering what we will leave in their place. Ultimately, that’s why local leadership is vital. We’ll leave. They live there.
But for now, we’re there, leading our allies against an enemy that reminds us of the worst we’ve ever seen. We can’t allow our weakest impulses to drive us back into a counterproductive land war. Our policy should point us towards building not just a decisive victory but a lasting peace.
© Copyright 2015 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.