Wage War on the Ground against ISIS? Are You Serious?

This article appeared on Newsweek on November 21, 2015.
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In all of the frenzied commentary about how to confront ISIS in the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Paris, three crucial questions that need to be answered before any major military campaign is launched have been virtually ignored.

Politicians and pundits have leapt at the opportunity provided by the horrific attacks in Paris to appear tough on terrorism. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan exclaimed, “This is war.” Sen. Lindsey Graham vowed to introduce an authorization for the use of force against ISIS “that is not limited by Time, Geography or Means.”

In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday, Democratic front‐​runner Hillary Clinton advocated strongly for Congress to pass a new authorization for the use of military force and called for imposing a no‐​fly zone in Syria. She also argued for ramping up the proxy war: if Baghdad won’t arm Sunni and Kurdish militants to fight ISIS, she insisted, the U.S.-led coalition “should do so directly.”

These urgent calls to deepen the U.S. military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria epitomize the tendency in Washington to speak first and think later. Before marching headlong into another all out war in the Middle East, mere years after our last catastrophic fiasco there, three questions need to be asked and answered.

1. Does ISIS present enough of a threat to justify military action?

Americans are understandably shaken after the Paris attacks and ISIS’s threats to target the U.S. next. But the actual threat posed by ISIS has been systematically exaggerated.

This week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who has called for a U.S.-led ground war against ISIS, bellowed, “Radical Islamic terrorists have declared war on the Western world. Their aim is our total destruction.”

To put it mildly, this overstates the threat from ISIS. Even after Paris, the threat of terrorism is a minor one. Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning or to drown in a bathtub than to be killed by Islamic terrorists. Is it really wise to commit to a costly and perilous military campaign to snuff out a minor threat?

ISIS has been losing territory and manpower of late. Their profits from oil revenue and internal extortion are rapidly dwindling. At the end of the day, the U.S. has faced much more serious foes in the past.

ISIS has no navy, no air force, no missiles — none of the truly destructive power of modern militaries. They are a ragtag group of apocalyptic militants that is barely holding onto power at its core and is armed with small arms and homemade low‐​yield explosives.

2. Will our military efforts be effective?

It’s emotionally satisfying to the psychological uncertainty that inevitably follows a terrorist attack to take ostentatious military action. But that doesn’t mean it’s wise. If the U.S. is to apply military tactics against ISIS, the likely effects have to be considered carefully.

Imposing a no‐​fly zone is problematic for several reasons. First of all, France and Russia are also in the skies dropping bombs on ISIS. Is the U.S. obligated to shoot down Russian planes that defy the no‐​fly edict? Even putting aside the dangerous risk of escalating a conflict between the U.S. and Russia, why would we want to obstruct Moscow from bombing ISIS?

More practically, imposing a no‐​fly zone in Syria has mission creep written all over it. We would most likely have to bomb Syrian military targets to take out their air defense systems. This can easily kill Syrian civilians and, worse still, would undermine the Assad regime while bolstering the position of ISIS.

NATO’s no‐​fly zone in Libya ended up being an air force for rebels seeking regime change, and the power vacuum in the wake of the Gadhafi regime unambiguously aided local extremist groups.

Arming militants on the ground in Syria is an old and futile idea. Back in 2012, the U.S. was working with regional allies to send arms and aid to Syrian rebels even though, as the New York Times reported at the time, “Most of the arms…are going to hardline Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster.” Even some of the moderate rebels receiving aid later joinedlocal al Qaeda groups and ISIS.

The Obama administration’s last ditch effort to train and equip a moderate Syrian rebel force famously failed in 2015 with U.S. officials admitting in Congressional testimony that after $500 million, only “four or five” fighters had reached the battlefield.

Finally, putting U.S. ground forces into action should set off flashing red lights for anyone not suffering from short‐​term memory loss. Even the vaunted surge in Iraq, which at its height required about 180,000 coalition troops, failed to effectively stabilize Iraq and eliminate the Sunni insurgency, of which ISIS is a direct descendant.

In short, our military options may roll back ISIS in the short‐​term, but they will mostly be effective in multiplying our problems and intensifying regional instability.

3. Is it in our interest to get more involved?

Crucial to calculating whether military action is in our interests is considering the host of unintended consequences that, based on previous experience in the region, we could reasonably predict may result.

One obvious recent experience to start with is, of course, Iraq. ISIS has its origins in the Sunni insurgency that rose up to fight U.S. forces following the horrendously stupid invasion by the George W. Bush administration. This gave rise to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab al‐​Zarqawi, which eventually split from core Al Qaeda, in part because of its shocking violence towards other Muslims.

AQI, like ISIS now, includes in its highest ranks former Baathist members of Saddam Hussein’s military apparatus, who joined the militant group after the Bush administration’s de‐​Baathification policies and after the U.S.-backed sectarian regime in Baghdad proved unwilling to include Sunnis in government. If that’s not a lesson in unintended consequences, I don’t know what is.

Followers of ISIS still pledge loyalty to Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in 2006. Before his death, AQI leaders published a book called The Management of Savagery. It laid out a strategy of employing spectacular acts of brutality and displaying them across media platforms in order to goad Western powers into ground wars in the Middle East. This took notice of the jihadi lesson of the guerrilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, that this was the only way they could do any real damage to a great power like the U.S.

It’s ironic to say the least that those calling for a hardline interventionist approach to ISIS are unwittingly falling into ISIS’s trap. Nicolas Hénin, a French citizen who escaped from the captivity of ISIS, said military intervention is “what ISIS wants.” They attacked Paris, Hénin wrote recently, “knowing all too well that the attack would force us to keep bombing or even to intensify these counterproductive attacks.“An intensified air war or ground invasion to battle ISIS would be incredibly costly in blood and treasure and has a high likelihood of yielding counterproductive blowback and unintended consequences. But more than that, it’s the very approach that will give the struggling terrorist group a new lease on life. Nothing could be better for their recruitment than a renewed battle with the Crusaders.

So, is it in our interest to entangle ourselves in another complicated and vicious Middle Eastern war that has little chance of success and high chances of making everything worse? No.

And don’t let the supposed “strong leaders” in Washington lead us into another catastrophe.