The Problem With Vows to ‘Defeat’ the Islamic State

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani Ocotber 8, 2014. U.S.-led air strikes on Wednesday pushed Islamic State fighters back to the edges of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani, which they had appeared set to seize after a three-week assault, local officials said. The town has become the focus of international attention since the Islamists' advance drove 180,000 of the area's mostly Kurdish inhabitants to flee into adjoining Turkey, which has infuriated its own restive Kurdish minority-- and its NATO partners in Washington -- by refusing to intervene. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR49CYL

In recent weeks, ISIS has suffered territorial losses on multiple fronts, including in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The organization may look nearer to defeat than at any time in the past two years, but there is still a great deal of fighting to be done before the group is destroyed, or more likely beaten back to an underground terrorist organization as it was in 2009. In a previous post, we argued that truly defeating the ISIS threat would be more expensive than most now recognize, and beyond what most Americans would be willing to pay, leaving containment as the only viable option. Ambassador James Jeffrey disagrees.

In particular, he argues that the United States and its allies should reinforce today’s U.S. force of roughly 5,000 soldiers with another 10,000 troops, order them to lead a conventional ground offensive against ISIS, and loosen the rules of engagement for ground fighting and air strikes to tolerate more civilian casualties. With these policies, Jeffrey argues, ISIS can be defeated promptly. Once Raqqa falls, the real U.S. mission is complete in his view. He doesn’t say what those 15,000 soldiers should do then, but he’s opposed to a costly stabilization mission and implies that U.S. troops should instead go home and avoid further commitment.
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We agree that stabilization is too expensive. But we disagree with Jeffrey on the merits of a smash-and-leave conventional offensive. In our view, such a policy actually secures none of the interests that nominally motivate it.

Jeffrey’s argument is a variation on a theme that is increasingly prominent among analysts frustrated with the long U.S. counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq: The United States should adopt a policy of waging decisive conventional warfare against states without worrying overmuch about what happens afterwards when the target regime is toppled. But this position isn’t actually new—it represents a return to the de facto policy the United States adopted in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001. A decade later we know quite a bit about the likely consequences, and they aren’t pretty.

If all we’re going to get is the kind of chaos that typically follows regime change without stabilization, such as the kind of warlord governance that we now see in Libya, for example, then the real payoff to smash-and-leave conventional warfare of this type is very limited. Reasonable people can differ on whether the limited payoff and ugly aftermath of U.S. conventional warfare against ISIS is worse than the limited payoff and ugly interim of containment—this is ultimately a value judgment on balancing current against future costs, and different people will have different time preferences on costs. But this is not a simple choice between decisive victory against ISIS as opposed to chronic terrorism with containment. The real difference is much narrower, and we’re going to be living with some version of containment against most of the threat for a long time either way. The greater cost of proposals such as Jeffrey’s thus needs to be weighed against a properly modest understanding of their real benefits.

Jeffrey’s proposal raises at least two important, related, issues for public debate: Is it really wise to topple regimes then leave, and how do we draw the line between threats we must actually defeat and those we will instead contain?

What’s Left Behind by “Smash and Leave”?

As for the first, the smash-and-leave approach fell into disfavor after 2003, when post-Saddam Iraq fell into chaos after the United States failed to stabilize the leaderless country. As early as 2004, Rumsfeldian willingness to dismiss the messiness of freedom in the aftermath of U.S.-imposed regime change was widely criticized as short-sighted. This critique became something like conventional wisdom after the growing Iraqi insurgency drove Rumsfeld from office and led to the surge of some 30,000 additional troops into Iraq in 2007-2008.
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Leave Root Causes Aside—Destroy the ISIS ‘State’

Yet the smash-and-leave thesis is now making a comeback. Recent books by retired General Daniel Bolger, retired Colonel Gian Gentile, and by the Reagan administration official Bing West critique nation-building as a military mission and advocate conventional warfighting to destroy hostile armies instead. Israeli analysts bemoan the indecisiveness of occupation and stabilization, and seek a return to the “battlefield decision” of the conventional wars Israel fought in 1956, 1967, or 1973. Many would like some alternative to the Hobson’s choice between mere containment and the long, grinding commitment of stabilization. Conventional invasion followed by quick departure looks to some like an answer.

There is now plenty of evidence on such policies’ outcomes, however. If Iraq weren’t enough, there are Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia, among other examples, to show that the chaos following regime change often creates exactly the kind of terrorist havens, humanitarian crises, and refugee threats that motivate today’s U.S. concern with ISIS. Indeed it was precisely the U.S. policy of regime change without real stabilization in Iraq that created ISIS itself, a lineal descendant of the Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate that arose in the turmoil of post-Saddam Iraq.

Conventional conquest is often faster and cheaper than stabilization and counterinsurgency, but warfare is a means to political ends—if the military means don’t actually secure any of the political ends, then the fighting is just a waste of lives and dollars, whether the United States declares victory after an early advance or not. The U.S. interests at stake in Syria and Iraq are a combination of homeland security against terrorism, humanitarian concerns for civilian suffering and refugee outflows, and the stability of a region with unusual importance for global energy markets. Defeat of ISIS per se is just a means to these ends—it is not an end in itself. If a U.S.-led offensive pulls down the ISIS black flag over Raqqa, but ISIS is then replaced by al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, or another militant group, which then claims vanguard status in global jihad against the West, and if that group then uses this to consolidate control over its current Syrian territory and to destabilize weak U.S. clients in Raqqa or Mosul, then how much real progress will have been made toward the actual interests that motivate the campaign in the first place? In fact there is evidence that Jabhat al-Nusra’s new incarnation, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, is already planning just such a transition in anticipation of ISIS’s decline. To replace ISIS with another al-Qaeda offshoot may be an improvement even so, but a modest one at best.