In Iraq Fight Against ISIS, The US Can't Rely Only On Airstrikes

ISIS flag iraq
Iraqi security forces pull down a flag belonging to the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during a patrol in the town of Dalli Abbas in the province of Diyala June 30. Reuters/Stringer

The United States government has made one thing clear as it continues its air strikes against ISIS in Northern Iraq: Placing ground troops in the country to engage in combat operations is not an option. The White House does not want to become embroiled in another ground war barely three years after leaving Iraq, and that reluctance has been forcefully conveyed by President Barack Obama and reiterated by Secretary of State John Kerry.

However, according to experts, the endurance and staying power of the Islamic militant group ISIS raises questions about what the best outcome for a reluctant United States and a politically fragile Iraq is.

“There is no best case scenario, there are bad scenarios and very bad scenarios,” said Ariel Cohen, principal of International Markets Analysis, Ltd. and former senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “So now the question is, can we manage this as a chronic disease? That’s the best we can hope for -- we manage it.”

The United States is now in its second week of air strikes against ISIS in Northern Iraq after around 20,000 to 30,000 Yazidis were forced in to the nearby Sinjar mountains creating a desperate humanitarian crisis. The U.K and Australian governments have assisted with food drops for the displaced Kurds and U.S. troops have begun to assist in evacuating those stranded. 

“We are not generally successful in turning the terrorists back,” said Cohen. “In no theater of the global war on terror have radical, violent extremist groups been eradicated. Not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, not in Yemen. In fact they are spreading.”

According to Cohen, rising Muslim extremism has predominantly made its most serious gains in Africa, chiefly in unstable, remote areas of Somalia and Nigeria.

Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville said that ISIS is becoming more adept at avoiding the airstrikes. An air campaign may not eradicate the group. 

Despite this, Obama would clearly prefer that any military solution come from the government in Baghdad, with the United States merely providing air support for someone else's ground forces, as it has done in Libya in 2011 and in 1999 in Kosovo.

“I think that approach makes good sense,” said Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Research, Foreign Policy Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. “But what is much more difficult is to work with a new Iraqi government to get a force established, which I hope it will soon, and to create a strategy of taking back North and Western Iraq from ISIS.”

But one of the main problems, according to O’Hanlon, is how interspersed ISIS has become in the local population in Western Iraq. Dislodging the militants would require a major ground effort the U.S. can not outsource entirely to the Iraqi Army, whose training and capabilities have proven to be seriously lacking in the recent confrontations with ISIS. “It’s going to resemble something similar to the surge in Iraq in 2007,” said O’Hanlon. “Except this time the United States isn’t going to provide the main combat forces; the most we would be able to is provide special forces and advisory teams as we help manage whatever Iraq decides to do.”

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