How Obama Could Salvage His Hapless ISIS Strategy

Sunni Arabs, trained by the U.S. in the Kurdish region of Iraq, could form an effective fighting force.

Wall Street Journal

SEP 30, 2015

Even as Russia launched airstrikes Wednesday against rebel forces in Syria, Obama administration officials and U.S. military leaders claim that the campaign against Islamic State is working. The facts suggest otherwise.

Commanders can point to more than 22,000 sorties flown by U.S. aircraft over Iraq and Syria since the campaign began in August 2014. But fewer than one-third of those flights have dropped bombs. That’s because no U.S. air controllers are allowed on the ground to call in targets. In Afghanistan in 2001, where such controllers were present, the U.S. averaged 86 strike sorties a day; in Iraq in 2003, 596; in Libya in 2011, 46. In Iraq and Syria today, there are on average 11 strike sorties a day.

U.S. Central Command, which is accused by its own intelligence analysts of skewing intelligence, claims that between August 2014 and April 2015, Islamic State, also known as ISIS, “can no longer operate freely in roughly 25 to 30 percent of populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once could.” Note the timing of that assessment: It was delivered before Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and Palmyra, an ancient city in central Syria, fell to ISIS in May.

It’s true that in the past year ISIS lost control of the Iraqi town of Tikrit and of some territory in northern Syria, notably the border town of Kobani. But Iraqi forces have made no progress in taking back the far more important cities of Fallujah, Ramadi or Mosul. Much of eastern Syria remains securely in the hands of ISIS. And now ISIS is claiming “provinces” as far away as Libya and Afghanistan.

Central Command says its military operations have killed more than 12,000 ISIS fighters. Yet assessments of ISIS’s overall strength, at 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, remain unchanged, because more than 1,000 foreign fighters a month are joining ISIS, more than making up for its losses.

ISIS is not invincible. Whenever it has run into a disciplined military force supported by U.S. air power, as in Kobani or Tikrit, it has been defeated. The problem is that the U.S. has neither put enough of its own forces on the ground (only 3,000 in noncombat roles in Iraq) nor succeeded in training enough indigenous personnel. On Sept. 16, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, told Congress that, incredibly, there are only “four or five” American-trained rebel fighters currently fighting in Syria.

The training program is falling short of expectations because the U.S. has done a poor job of providing incentives for Sunnis to fight ISIS. Both Baghdad and Damascus are dominated by Iran and its murderous proxies such as Hezbollah and the Badr Corps—groups that make many Sunnis see ISIS as the lesser evil.

Yet the U.S. insists that Syrian fighters battle only ISIS, not dictator Bashar Assad’s forces or Iran’s proxies, and that Iraqi fighters subordinate themselves to an Iranian-dominated chain of command. At the same time, by providing money and arms to the Baghdad government, the U.S. is subsidizing the Iranian takeover of substantial portions of Iraq. Iraq has even joined a new pact with Russia, Syria and Iran intended to keep Mr. Assad in power under the guise of fighting ISIS. Russia’s role—and its warplanes above Syrian territory—further marginalizes U.S. influence.

Maybe it’s time for a different approach.

Washington could announce that as long as the government in Baghdad continues to pursue a sectarian strategy in cooperation with Iranian-backed terrorist groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq it will no longer receive U.S. support.

Central Command could then relocate U.S. personnel to the Kurdish north, a relatively safe area where they can train a nonsectarian force to take back Mosul. This force would be composed primarily of Sunni Arabs, many of whom are already refugees in the Kurdish region, because only Arabs can take and hold Arab areas.

Considering how few ISIS fighters are holding Mosul (we estimate 3,000 to 6,000 men), a force of 30,000 Sunni soldiers assisted by U.S. air power and embedded American advisers should be enough for “clear and hold” operations.

Once Mosul is taken, a new Sunni force could be trained to take back Anbar province. If a Sunni revolt against ISIS has success in Iraq, it will shatter that organization’s aura of invincibility and likely spread across the border. And if the U.S. is willing to fight against the Assad regime as well as ISIS, Syrian rebels will be more likely to sign up for training in newly liberated parts of Iraq.

This is admittedly a risky strategy that runs the danger of strengthening Iran’s hold over Baghdad in the short run. But Iran is already the dominant player in Baghdad. It is just possible that if the U.S. were to show that it’s not wedded to supporting the existing power brokers in Baghdad, they may take the hard steps necessary to accommodate Sunnis.

The anti-ISIS campaign has no hope of success as long as Sunnis refuse to mobilize en masse. The strategy we propose offers a way to achieve that goal. The current approach doesn’t.

Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “Invisible Armies” (Liveright, 2013). Mr. Pregent, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer, is a visiting fellow at National Defense University.