Public reports of the Trump administration’s deliberations to develop a new counter-ISIS strategy may alarm many Americans.
The Pentagon has not yet arrived at a final set of options to be delivered to the president. Before Secretary Mattis recommends an increase in U.S. troop levels for President Trump’s consideration, however, both men must wrap their heads around these three crucial questions:
1. Are more U.S. troops necessary? The current counter-ISIS strategy is working. Already, the group suffers from a tremendous amount of pressure in terms of manpower, finances, morale, and territorial losses. ISIS has proven to be far more resilient than the Iraqi government and the SDF perhaps expected – after a three-month operation to clear the eastern half of Mosul, Iraqi forces are just now entering its western limits. Yet the indisputable fact is the caliphate is shrinking by the day.
For the last year, the flow of foreign fighters across Turkey’s southern border has gone from a flood to a trickle. Because Turkey is now far more active in northern Syria and along its southern border, ISIS is increasingly forced to conscript local Iraqis and Syrians to shore up their ranks. The organization’s crude oil production is no longer the money-making machine it once was. Overall, the caliphate’s size has decreased from 35,000 square miles in the beginning of 2015 to less than 25,000 today.
2. What happens after ISIS leaves Raqqa?: A military operation is only as good as the outcome it achieves. The lessons learned from the invasion and occupation of Iraq — besides the obvious conclusion that regime change is a costly and terrible way to advance our national security interests — is that driving the enemy out is only half the battle. If military operations aren’t followed up with a realistic plan for a positive political outcome, the endeavor will fail.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps easily routed Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards from Baghdad. Pacifying the city and providing public services to the millions of people living there, however, was impossible due to the lack of personnel, resources, and authorities to do the job. As today, Americans simply didn’t understand the complex cultures in the region.
America and our coalition partners face similar problems in Raqqa. We have heard very little about how the city will be governed and policed once ISIS is driven out. Will the Kurdish forces who make up a majority of the combat power within the SDF insist on a piece of the action, or will they decide to leave stabilization operations to the Arab factions? Do the Arabs have enough men to pacify Raqqa and defend its people from ISIS counter attacks, in addition to caring for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who want to return to their homes? How will Turkey fit into this operation? Will the Turks and the Kurds be willing to partner with each other temporarily, and if not, how does putting U.S. forces in the middle of it help forge consensus?
3. Do the costs outweigh the benefits?: When you want the best, you send in the U.S. military.
But the costs of putting Americans in harm’s way — to prevent Syrians from killing other Syrians — are considerable. American troops are much more likely to be killed or injured the closer they are to the danger. But the downsides are deeper than that — the more proactive the U.S. is, the less incentive Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces will have to continue fighting and dying for their own territory.
The U.S. military went through this repeatedly in Iraq, during the last decade. During the 2003-2007 timeframe, conventional U.S. troops were doing the clearing, the holding, and the building, often at great risk and sacrifice to themselves. Some of the biggest battles in the Iraq war were planned, resourced, and manned predominately by Americans, with Iraqis generally in the rear. Successive Iraqi prime ministers came to depend upon Washington to keep order in Iraqi cities.
The current fight against ISIS is very different from that past military engagement. American pilots may be conducting the bombing runs, but it is local rebels — the people who have to fight for and win their own futures — who are snuffing ISIS’s presence in the cities. That’s a monumental evolution in counterterrorism that should be encouraged by the U.S., not undermined through a larger contingent of Americans.
There are certainly situations that might prompt U.S. officials to reassess their plan and pour more military resources into the fight.At a time when the Islamic State is rapidly losing territory and with the current strategy producing positive results, however, now is not the time to risk American lives and spend even more of our scarce resources on Syria’s civil war.