President Obama’s strategy to stop ISIS from forming a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and mounting attacks against the homeland relies on a lot of things going right that have historically gone wrong.
In a speech to America Wednesday night on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and in the wake of the beheading of two American journalists by the group, Obama said that ISIS was an enemy that needed to be defeated. However, he assured a war-weary but shaken American public that U.S. ground troops would not be involved in the fighting.
“[T]onight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama said, using an alternate name for the group
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama added. “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Obama also said that America would hunt ISIS “wherever they exist.”
“I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he said.
Obama plans to take on the group with a multi-pronged strategy. He and Secretary of State John Kerry are trying to form a coalition of countries, including Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. That coalition would send troops to Iraq to either fight or train Iraqi security forces (Saudi Arabia announced last night that it would agree to Obama’s request to provide bases to train moderate Syrian fighters).
Obama plans to continue airstrikes against ISIS, both in Iraq and in Syria, and provide assistance to moderate Syrian rebels. Lastly, he said the United States would up its support for the Iraqi military, and send an additional 475 American troops to Iraq, although they would not engage in combat.
However, according to Steve Bucci, who for three decades served as an Army Special Forces officer and Pentagon official and now a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Obama’s lack of specifics make it difficult to know if the plan would work.
“The details of the plan…are pretty sketchy,” he said. “This president isn’t very big on details.”
Obama is also betting that strategies that have failed in the past will work this time around. For instance, the United States has been training and arming Afghan security forces for more than a decade. Yet time and again, the Afghan army has proven inept.
Coalition building to fight international terrorism has also had its problems. In Afghanistan, the United States did the lion share of fighting and provided the most of the financial support to the Afghan government and military. The coalition that fought the Iraq war was a coalition in name only; allies like Germany sat out that fight.
It’s also unclear why the president referred to Somalia and Yemen as success stories. In Somalia, al Shabaab continues to terrorize East Africa, while al Qaeda continues to thrive in Yemen.
The coalition that the White House hopes to form is also different in a fundamental way: It will not be led by a large number of United States troops on the ground. Bucci says the most effective way to defeat ISIS is to send U.S. Special Forces into Iraq in the same way they were sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“I think they need to do a little more,” Bucci said. “We should not have boots on the ground in the sense that we need conventional U.S. combat units in there. But we need to use a model similar to what we did in Afghanistan, where we embedded our soft guys with the local military.”
“We embed these soft guys into these [Iraqi and Kurdish] units to stiffen their spines a bit, then bring in heavy American and European air assets and pound the heck out of these guys. It will be way more efficient with our guys in there,” he added.
Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs, said that the president faces a more fundamental problem in his speech. Despite growing fears in the American public about the group -- 47 percent now feel less safe than they did before the 2001 terror attacks, compared to 28 percent a year ago -- it’s unlikely that they would support a sustained campaign against the group.
“I think it would be important for him to state why America should [have] skin in the game in a Sunni civil war,” Goldberg said.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times