Friday, November 28, 2014

Hagel's Departure Reveals Obama's Underestimation of the Threat from the Islamic State - Steven M. Ackerman

by Steven M. Ackerman

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation highlights the Obama Administration’s failure to appreciate the threat posed by Islamic State.  Hagel and the Joint Chiefs have argued that the conflict against Islamic State is much larger and more serious than the White House contends.  In August, Hagel made his famous statement that the threat from Islamic State was “beyond anything we’ve seen” and that Islamic State was “beyond [being] just a terrorist group.”  Hagel was backing Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey’s refusal to rule out the need for U.S. ground troops; a question President Obama has persistently avoided. 

Despite Obama’s eventual bellicose language against the Islamic State, he has yet to outline a set of goals or a clear strategy to achieve them.  Meanwhile, the President continues to send more U.S. troops to Iraq -- from 400 to 3,000 over the past few months.  This harks back to President Lyndon Johnson’s approach to the conflict in Vietnam when he got the U.S. increasingly involved, but was never clear on the goals of the mission or the strategy to achieve victory.  Like his 1960s predecessor, President Barack Obama has failed to explain how he plans to deal with the threat the Islamic State poses.  This is despite prodding from Secretary Hagel and the military.

I believe the Obama Administration could send roughly 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq in an all-out conflict with the Islamic State by the spring of 2015.  It would likely be composed of 2-3 army combat brigades (upwards of 12,000 soldiers) a mix of special operations team (with expertise in chemical weapons) and counter-terrorism training, and extra troops for border protection around Jordan and Turkey.  There might also be additional soldiers to ensure an adequate force due to the open-ended and unpredictable nature of this conflict.

This will occur because the utility from airstrikes will diminish.  At the same time, the Obama Administration’s slow and tepid response to arming and training local fighters will continue to make it harder to pull together the kind of coherent force needed to turn the course of the conflict.  Finally, the Obama Administration continues to show little sign that it will include in its outreach to allies – both in the region and in Europe – the clear strategy for victory over IS, commitment to fulfill that strategy, and vision for long-term stability in Iraq and the region.  Given this, it is difficult to see why America’s would be willing to bear the cost of a complex engagement such as this one.    It is unfortunate that the Obama Administration did not consider such potential problems when it departed so unceremoniously in 2011.  Wars are won on the ground; not from the air.  It is hard to see how airstrikes, intelligence sharing, and the delivery of weapons can compensate for that fact.  Wars are massive undertakings of coordination under pressure where the psychology of political will can help one side defeat its adversary.  This requires cooperation on the ground among allies; not dictates from foreign powers thousands of miles away.

If the Obama Administration were truly serious in achieving victory over the Islamic State, it would have stayed involved in the region, ensuring Iraq properly unifying, monitoring Syria, checking Iran, and maintaining longstanding ties with friends.  It would have acted as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, cementing relations and understanding the concerns of Turkey -- the most pivotal state in the area.  To be sure, Turkey has been playing both sides of the fence, i.e., its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its less than enthusiastic support for the defeat of IS. 

However, it has also shown flexibility and cooperation when it has a larger interest.  For example, it recently allowed Pesh Merga fighters cross its border to go into Syria and fight IS around Kobani.  The larger point is that the Obama Administration should be trying to get Turkey to be part of a coalition against IS, highlighting the fact that Erdogan’s government -- or any government in the region -- won’t be able to limit Islamic State.  His support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and his unwillingness to do more against IS can be tempered by his own desire to have a stable southern border.  The U.S. can also leverage Erdogan’s anti-Assad sentiments (which helped the U.S. locate Patriot missile batteries in Turkey against Syria) with the fact that neither Washington nor Ankara want Assad replaced with a radical Islamic group who wantonly dismisses borders.  Such a move should make any Turkish leader pause.  U.S. economic incentives to Kurdish oil development, as a condition to remaining within Iraq’s borders, coupled with U.S. long-term commitments to a unified Iraq could be used as leverage to get Turkish support.

Looking back, it is clear that the Obama Administration waited far too long, did far too little, and left Iraq far too quickly.  Staying in Iraq could have prepared that country to withstand the kind of hit the Islamic State landed on it.  It also would have meant a much more informed and ready America; one able to pull together local troops and countries for combat and support.  And, there would have been legitimacy to all observers based on American commitment to the unified Iraqi state in a stable region prepared to counter terrorism.  Such a deterrence-based policy now looks inexpensive compared to the open-ended engagement in which it may be contemplating.

But despite all this, the Obama Administration hopes to build an international coalition that will bear the cost, all the while claiming it won’t put U.S. “boots on the ground” to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State.

Incremental military involvements are always dangerous.  They put people in harm’s way, fail to reassure friends and allies, and show a lack of resolve to adversaries.  A country ends up fighting a larger war – beyond the threat originally posed – in order to prove to others it has the will to fight.  Ironically, President Obama’s biggest accomplishment against Islamic State may be to cause his successor to inherit a war.

Stephen M. Ackerman was an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Air Force, and an analyst with the President's Commission on Defense Base Closure and Realignment.  He is President and CEO of Competitive Edge Research.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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