“Containment” rather than “defeat” realistic objective against ISIS
Conventional wisdom has it that in order to defeat and eliminate ISIS we will need to have boots on the ground. More particularly ours. Some in the administration acknowledge this but see them as local forces—a newly trained Iraqi national army and the Kurds, with our boots only being advisory. Yet, few have any confidence in the Iraqi national army. After years of training and well armed, they ran from their positions, leaving heavy weapons behind in the sickeningly fast fall of Mosul. Their generals were selected on a sectarian basis and were all but useless. The integration of the newly proclaimed “inclusive” government has yet to be embraced by Suni tribal leaders, let alone members of the former Republican army. The latter, by the way, the elite forces of Saddam Hussein, fought an ill-trained Revolutionary Iranian Army to a standstill for years after failing to gain meaningful territory. The Kurdish Pesh Merga are not as unified as most assume and besides their numbers are such as to likely limit their range to attempting to regain lost northern Iraqi cities in and bordering on Kurdistan.
ISIS is well entrenched in many of their recently occupied cities and any attempt to roust them out would likely cause a large number of civilian casualties. This is true whether the “boots on the ground” were Iraqi national army’s, Pesh Merga’s or our own. If they are our own, the anti-Western backlash could be enormous. Though we could, undoubtedly, push them out of the cities they have recently taken, we would have to stay there forever in order to secure the gains. It is difficult to imagine the American public standing still for such a commitment.
Taken together, this makes the strategy of defeating ISIS, or as Republican Senator Marco Rubio urged, “Bomb(ing) them back to the Stone Age,” an exercise in dangerous hyperbole. And an impossible task.
In game theoretical terms, “defeating” ISIS is employing a zero-sum game. You either “Win” or “Lose.” But these aren’t the only real world alternatives. A more modest, and achievable, objective would be to contain ISIS through our air-strikes. The Pesh Merga should, with this kind of air support, regain some of the recent conquests of ISIS, making the perimeter defendable. We will still have to enlist moderate Suni forces, to do the same in western and southwestern fronts.
Containment, as a strategy, served us well, rather than the alternative war with the Soviet Union, during the cold-war days. I believe it can do so in Iraq and Syria.