Happy Talk Won’t Defeat Islamic State

Statistics being touted by the Pentagon have a whiff of the Vietnam War about them.

Wall Street Journal

APR 23, 2015

Nearly eight months have passed since President Obama pledged to take on the terrorist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” Mr. Obama vowed. How is that campaign going?

The Pentagon loves to release impressive-sounding numbers to give the suggestion of progress. The latest statistics for “Operation Inherent Resolve,” in case you’re curious, claim that U.S. air power has destroyed 75 tanks, 285 Humvees, 441 staging areas, 1,689 buildings, 1,166 fighting positions, 151 pieces of oil infrastructure, and 1,977 various other targets. The Pentagon also claimed, in late January, to have killed 6,000 Islamic State fighters.

Such figures are about as relevant and credible as the “body counts” of Vietnam days. Islamic State isn’t a heavy-armor force that is helpless without tanks. It is a guerrilla force of terrorists and light infantry that will remain formidable as long as its men have AK-47s and a ruthless determination to inflict violence. There is no sign that either its bloodlust or its ability to replenish its losses is diminishing. The group receives an estimated 1,000 new recruits from abroad every month, more than enough to make up for those killed, which is why total estimates of its strength (20,000 to 30,000 fighters) never vary no matter its losses.

The key to diminishing Islamic State’s appeal is to roll back its self-declared “caliphate,” which sprawls across Iraq and Syria—and is now spreading even farther afield. Militants claiming affiliation with it have recently executed dozens of Ethiopian Christians in Libya and blown up dozens of bank customers in eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. airstrikes in combination with ground action by allies have pushed Islamic State out of Kobani in Syria and Tikrit in Iraq. In the former case, the on-the-ground fighters were Kurds; in the latter case they were mainly Iranian-directed Shiite militias. But Islamic State remains firmly in control of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. Boasts from the U.S. military in February that Iraqi forces would retake Mosul in the spring (i.e., now) have prudently been retracted.

And far from retreating after the loss of Tikrit, Islamic State has gone on the offensive. Its fighters now threaten to take the parts of Ramadi that they don’t already control. This has led the Pentagon to do some pre-emptive spinning. “The city itself is not symbolic in any way,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,claimed. “It’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand, or central to the future of Iraq.”

You may recall that U.S. military leaders tried a similar line about how unimportant Kobani was until they decided to fight for it, at which point it became the center of the entire American war effort. We can expect something similar to happen in this case: Ramadi doesn’t matter until it does.

In truth Ramadi is an important city—the capital of Anbar Province, a vital stop on the highway from Baghdad to the Syrian border, and the place where the Anbar Awakening started in 2006. It was the ability of U.S. forces, in conjunction with Sunni fighters, to take back Ramadi in 2006-07 from Islamic State’s predecessors that signaled the success of the surge. The fact that Ramadi is in danger of being lost now hardly means that the campaign against Islamic State is over, but it does mean that it isn’t making nearly as much progress as the official spinmeisters claim.

The fundamental problem is that no one has mobilized Sunni tribes to resist Islamic State. The government in Baghdad, which is dominated by Shiite sectarians, has scant credibility or interest in doing so, and the U.S. has held back because President Obama doesn’t want to become too deeply enmeshed in another war.

Thus we are once again trying to “lead from behind.” This is a poor strategy when the effective leader of the anti-Islamic State coalition is Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the high-profile head of the Iranian Quds Force. He and his brutal militiamen are anathema to Sunnis, and for good reason: Shiite militias maraud through Sunni towns that they “liberate.” Until Sunnis are motivated to fight against Islamic State, it is hard to imagine the campaign making much progress.

The situation in Syria is even worse. In that country there is no ground force at all to oppose Islamic State, which is why it has actually expanded its domain since U.S. bombing began. That fact was omitted from a recent map released by the Pentagon, which depicts Islamic State in retreat. The Obama administration has made promises about training the Free Syrian Army but has done little to follow up. Moreover, the U.S. continues to stand aside as Bashar Assad drops barrel bombs and chlorine bombs on rebel-held areas. Syrian rebels aren’t going to fight Islamic State at America’s behest while their families are being slaughtered by Assad’s relentless, Iranian-funded war machine.

It’s well past time for senior military officers to stop the happy talk about the supposed success of the anti-Islamic State campaign. They should level with the American public about how little our military will be able to accomplish until the restrictions imposed by this White House—“no boots on the ground”—are lifted.