To Defeat ISIS, It Must Be an American Fight

New York Times

NOV 17, 2015

“It cannot be an American fight,” Hillary Clinton said of ISIS. She is wrong. It is an American fight, one that will not succeed without American leadership. 

Far from being “contained” — as President Obama said in an interview that aired the morning of the Paris attacks — ISIS is using its operational base in Iraq and Syria to mount an increasingly dangerous terrorist offensive. In the past few weeks alone, the group has been tied to attacks in Paris, Sharm el-Sheikh, Beirut and Baghdad. Like previous totalitarian movements, ISIS, if left undefeated, will continue to expand its reign of terror.

Already ISIS is reportedly threatening an attack on Washington. Only the most Panglossian of analysts will assume that such an eventuality is impossible or that our defenses are so perfect that they will keep us safe. 

I advocate a response larger than our current ineffectual campaign, but still considerably smaller than the conventional invasion of Iraq that the Bush administration mounted in 2003. 

Call it “Afghanistan Plus” — a campaign modeled on the U.S. response to 9/11. Back then we sent advisers and airpower to enable the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban. Today we must do the same to galvanize Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq to rise up against ISIS. But because the forces facing ISIS are weaker and less cohesive than the Northern Alliance, we will need to do more than in 2001 to bring an effective military force into being. 

A force of perhaps 20,000 U.S. troops, backed by contributions from allies such as France, would make a big difference on the ground. But by itself force is not enough. We also need a political campaign plan to offer autonomy to Iraq’s Sunnis so that they will be assured they are not exchanging the rule of Sunni extremists for the tyranny of Shiite extremists.
Just as the U.S. defended Kurdish autonomy in 1991, so now the U.S. should guarantee Sunni autonomy and train and arm a new Sons of Iraq militia to defend Sunni communities against both ISIS and Shiite death squads. If the U.S. is willing to commit slightly more forces to Iraq, that will make our political guarantee more credible, and could enable us to defeat ISIS without risking a protracted military occupation.