Why a Military Victory Over ISIS Is Wishful Thinking
Policy + Politics

Why a Military Victory Over ISIS Is Wishful Thinking

Senior administration officials have now issued two warnings over the past week that the war against ISIS is going badly and that President Obama’s initial vow to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the murderous jihadist forces in Iraq and Syria may just be a pipe dream.

First Defense Secretary Ashton Carter publicly berated Iraqi troops for lacking the “will to fight” ISIS and for retreating from a showdown in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province where scores of U.S. troops gave their lives during the Iraq war.

Related: U.S. Defense Chief Says Iraqi Forces Lacked Will to Fight Islamic State

“What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” Carter told CNN’s “State of the Union” program a week ago. “They vastly outnumbered the opposing force. And yet they failed to fight.”

Then on Sunday, CIA Director John Brennan offered at best a perfunctory defense of the president’s air-strike strategy. “I believe firmly that we’re not going to resolve this problem on the battle field,” Brennan said during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. “We have to keep the pressure on them, but at the same time there has to be a viable political process that’s able to bring together the actors inside Iraq and Syria and for them to be able to decide how they are going to have a .peaceful future. So it’s a combination of military and political pressure that needs to be brought to bear.”

Related: How ISIS Regained Its Momentum in Iraq

“We will turn back ISIS, I have no doubt about it,” Brennan said. “But I think there's going to be unfortunately a lot of bloodshed between now and then."

Last September, Obama announced in a prime-time televised speech an open-ended campaign to combat the threat posed by the ISIS forces by greatly expanding a counterterrorism strategy and enlisting the support of scores of allies. The president said that the United States would join “with our friends and allies to degrade, and ultimately destroy, the terrorist group.”

While the administration can definitely cite a few important breakthroughs earlier this year, the terrorist group has become too entrenched and widespread to defeat in the near future.

Congressional Republican leaders including Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) have been highly critical of the president’s approach – including Obama’s refusal to send in additional combat troops to help Iraq battle ISIS forces.

Yet congressional leaders have been unwilling to spell out a more aggressive strategy for the administration in new war powers legislation.

Related: Britain Hangs Back As the U.S. Pays $2.2 Billion to Fight ISIS

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is expected to formally enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination later this month, said yesterday that the administration doesn’t have a coherent strategy for victory, just “a series of tactics reacting to whatever is going on the ground.”

“That doesn’t mean we need to have combat troops in harm’s way,” he said on Face the Nation. “But I think in concert with other countries – and certainly in an effort to try to restrict Iranian influence in Iraq – that we can play a constructive role.”

ISIS has made important gains in recent weeks, capturing the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.

Related: Why America’s War with ISIS Will Take Years

U.S. officials had been saying for several months that the U.S. air strikes were effective in degrading ISIS fighters in Iraq and that – under pressure from Iraqi forces – the terrorist group had lost as much as a quarter of the territory that it had amassed during lightning strikes last year, according to media reports. But the unexpected collapse and retreat of Iraqi forces in Ramadi proved to be a troubling eye-opener for Carter and other U.S. officials.

Brennan disputed the idea that the U.S. intelligence community has been surprised or caught flat-footed by ISIS' strength, saying he reviewed the intelligence last week and that, "we saw a growing strength."

"There are a lot of factors that come to play in terms of what gains they're able to make on the ground and as has been discussed, sometimes there are different Iraqi units that either don't have the leadership, the logistic support that they need in order to counter ISIS. And therefore it's looked at as a lack of a will to fight.”

“But I must say that there has been a fair amount of intelligence about the growing capabilities of ISIS as well as the challenges that beset the Iraqi government, the sectarian tensions that continue to fuel a lot of these problems," he said.

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