The United States Should Help Others Crush ISIS—and Not Much Else

Military analysis.
June 25 2014 6:04 PM

It’s Not Our War

The United States should help others crush ISIS, and not much else.

Units of Moqtada Sadr's militia parade down a main street of the Shi'a stronghold of Sadr City June 21, 2014, in Eastern Baghdad.
ISIS is well-armed, but not invincible.

Photo by Scott Nelson for the Washington Post

Despite prodding from the United States and others, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki doesn’t want to share power, the Kurds don’t want to give up a shot at independence, and the Sunnis would rather stick with murderous jihadist protectors than trust a Shiite government that shuns their demands and persecutes their leaders.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Should any of this surprise us? More to the point, why do some among us persist in thinking that, through three cups of tea and a few well-aimed airstrikes, we can persuade sectarian chieftains to cede their vital interests to some greater good as defined by foreign powers?

Earlier today, after meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Maliki denounced the demands for a new, more inclusive Iraqi government, saying that such a move would amount to a “coup”—which, indeed, it would. Maliki recently won the popular vote in a national election, and while his party hasn’t yet assembled a working majority in parliament, no other obvious leader sits poised on the sidelines. Maliki knows that the countries most keen to beat back the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—especially Iran, the neighboring ally that counts most—have no choice but to support him for now. He might also look for inspiration from Bashar al-Assad, whose days as Syrian president were long ago deemed over and who nonetheless hangs on. Not only do delusions run deep, sometimes in the short run they’re justified.

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Yet this delusion is particularly dangerous, and even Maliki must know it on some level. ISIS forces in Iraq are said to number a little more than 5,000. During the American occupation, strategists spoke of the need to “clear, hold, and build” an area. In other words, they needed enough troops to sweep an area of bad guys and move on to the next locale—while at the same time leaving troops behind to control the ground. The United States had a hard time doing this with 100,000 troops; ISIS can’t do it with a small fraction of that number. To the extent they’re able to hold their territory, they do so because local Sunnis—who dominate the areas conquered so far—prefer ISIS to Maliki’s Shiite government. They may not like the idea of sharia law or an ISIS state, but they see the ISIS guerrillas as their best hope for weakening or overthrowing Maliki, and so they go along for now.

But imagine if a new Iraqi government were formed, whether by Maliki or someone else, and several Sunni leaders joined it and declared that it would serve all Iraqis, not just Shiites—many Sunnis, who have been entrusted by ISIS to fly its flag and enforce its laws, might back off and join the pro-government resistance.

This is why an inclusive Iraqi government—one that’s seen as serving the interests of all Iraqis, not just Shiites—is crucial. It’s the only way to drive a wedge between ISIS and more moderate Sunnis. In other words, it’s the only way to crush ISIS.

Simply bombing ISIS strongholds won’t do the trick. In fact, military action alone will only further alienate the Sunnis—and reinforce the notion that America serves as Maliki’s air force. Advocates of American military action worry that an unchecked ISIS might someday launch terrorist strikes against the United States or Western Europe. Maybe so. But another way to inspire such attacks is to bomb ISIS positions (and probably kill some Sunni civilians in the process) while doing nothing to reform Iraqi politics.

That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, but it does mean we should recognize our limits. There’s been some misunderstanding about the 300 “advisers” that President Obama has sent to Baghdad. Most of them are setting up a “joint operations center.” The U.S. military has become very good at creating these centers in recent years. Its main business will be gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing intelligence from all sources—drone and satellite imagery, cellphone and computer intercepts, eyewitness reports. In other words, the center will figure out what’s going on—the state of the battlefield, the strengths and weaknesses of ISIS (and of the Iraqi security forces)—and what, if anything, we (or someone else) can do to make things better.

There were reports today of airstrikes against ISIS positions along Iraq’s western border, probably inflicted by Syria. Obama isn’t likely to order U.S. airstrikes, but his intelligence agencies could provide targeting data to the Syrians (and other neighbors interested in getting involved), so that their airstrikes can be more effective.

The ISIS fighters seem competent and savage; thanks to the Iraqi soldiers in Mosul and Tikrit, who left behind so many weapons as they fled, they’re also well-armed; thanks to the bank vaults they raided, they can also buy more arms and bribe more lackeys. But they’re not superhuman. The areas they’ve overrun so far are predominantly Sunni; they haven’t yet overtaken, or even fought much, in areas that are predominantly Shiite. Maps of contested areas show that they haven’t moved into southern Iraq at all; they’re not mounting a pincer attack on Baghdad from all sides. The Kurdish peshmerga are fighting them off in southern Kirkuk; the Iraqi army seems to be fighting them off in areas just north of Baghdad. The point is, ISIS fighters are strong and dangerous, but they’re not invincible.

Once the intelligence reports are in, Obama’s advisers may conclude that an airstrike here or there could have some impact on the fight. It’s possible that the cultivation of intelligence—macro-level assessments and tactical target-tracking assistance—could have a sustained impact on tilting the battlefield against ISIS.

But tilting the battlefield is the most we can, or should, do. The key question is, what are U.S. interests in this fight? They don’t involve helping Maliki, or stabilizing his government, or keeping Iraq whole. At this point, the U.S. interests involve—almost solely—crushing or severely containing ISIS, in order to keep it from creating a sanctuary for global terrorism and to keep sectarian warfare from engulfing the entire Middle East.

Diplomacy is the key. Maliki’s disenfranchisement of Sunni Arabs sowed the fertile soil for ISIS exploitation. Re-enfranchising Sunnis will do more than any number of smart bombs to loosen its grip.

Obviously, we can’t do any of this—the political or military side of it—alone; nor can we do it, not visibly, in the lead. We have lots of conflicting interests in the Middle East. We have to choose among them. That’s one consequence of a multipolar world: There are lots of contests, not just one big contest; a foe in one might be a friend in another. As it happens, the natural allies in a fight against ISIS are the United States, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Russia, Qatar, and (ambivalently) Saudi Arabia. Compartmentalization is far from an unnatural act in foreign policy. For instance, Russia, while antagonizing us in Ukraine, is still keeping open the U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan and playing a productive role in the Iranian nuclear talks—not to be nice but because it’s in its interest. Some call this cynicism, but it’s just the way the world works. Deal with it.

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