U.S. Lacks Long-Term Strategy in the Fight Against ISIS

There is a lot of confusion about the American strategy toward the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This is partially due to the President Obama’s lack of specificity and the shortsighted nature of Congress. The conversation now revolves around a question of how we can prevent “lone wolf” attacks at home, when perpetrators are inspired by ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. But this still falls in the context of the war America currently fights against ISIS in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, congressional counterterrorism policy advisor Harlan Geer spoke to the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University about Congress’ lack of a long-term strategy on the issue.

U.S. airstrike on Kobani
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in November (via Associated Press)

Despite this, Geer, who is a senior staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, believes ISIS will “fizzle out” over time. He listed a number of weaknesses, beginning with ISIS’ desire to govern and establish an Islamic caliphate. Governing requires structures, planning, and cooperation. ISIS would no longer operate in the shadows as a terrorist organization. Instead, it would become a slow-moving target, needing to establish relations with the very people it has been terrorizing for months.

Yet this supposed weakness did not wipe out the Taliban in Afghanistan, still in existence after more than a decade of war against NATO forces. The Taliban began as a group of jihadist fighters known as the mujahideen, armed by the U.S. in the fight against the Soviet Union.

After Soviet forces withdrew, the Taliban established a government and went on to harbor Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Another weakness is ISIS’ lack of selectivity in its recruitment process, after taking on an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 recruits, said Mr. Geer. The loyalty of these recruits could be in question. But even if ISIS should split into a number of factions, this does not mean the threat they pose to the United States will deteriorate.

ISIS’ extreme brutality has made it an enemy of everyone, including Al Qaeda. It has even made Iran and the U.S. somewhat unofficial allies. Both countries are conducting strikes on ISIS-held territory and training the Iraqi military. So are they cooperating militarily? According to Geer, “You can’t be doing what we’re doing in Iraq without coordinating.”

According to Bloomberg, U.S. weapons intended for the Iraqi military are winding up in the hands of Iran-influenced Shiite militias. Although these groups have committed severe human rights violations, Iraqi forces are not capable of halting ISIS’ offensive on their own.

Geer does not know what long-term policy should be, but he said a long, hard look needs to be taken at the strategy toward Iraq, Syria, and ISIS. The day-to-day nature of Congress is part of the problem. However, congressional leaders are now working on a new war authorization bill, giving approval for the U.S. involvement that began about five months ago. As reported by the Huffington Post, “In that time, the U.S. has spent more than $1 billion, participated in more than 1,700 air strikes, authorized roughly 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and lost three U.S. soldiers.

Even as progress is being made toward a bipartisan, unified stance against ISIS, the precise purpose of the war remains unclear. Is the U.S. trying to wipe out ISIS? Or will an American operation just seek to contain ISIS inside the territory it already controls?

Is the purpose of U.S. involvement to eliminate ISIS leadership while reestablishing the Iraqi military as a force capable of defending itself against extremist organizations? One rumor with regard to the former is that President Obama released the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, from Camp Bucca when it was closed in 2009. However, it appears he was handed over to Iraqi custody in 2004 and later released by the Iraqis. Regarding the latter, have they not been unsuccessfully trying to accomplish that for the better part of a decade?

With only two years left in office, the Obama administration’s strategy could be to avoid drawing a red line in terms of full engagement. This could be especially true in light of the president’s failed bid to go to war with Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its people.

In what appears to be one foot in the door and one foot out, it does not look like America’s military engagement in Middle East conflicts will be ending any time soon.


Erica Wenig

Erica Wenig is an intern with CCTV-America in Washington D.C.

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