Dec 08 2015
By Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain
In his address on national television Sunday night, President Obama insisted that he has a strategy to destroy Islamic State, also known as ISIS. But what Americans see instead is an incremental, reactive, indirect approach that assumes time is on our side. It is not. This danger is growing nearer: from attacks in Paris and Beirut, to the bombing of a Russian airliner, to the ISIS-inspired shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. What’s needed is a strategy to destroy ISIS—not “ultimately,” as the president said last year, but as quickly as possible.
During a recent visit to Iraq, we saw the damage that U.S. and coalition forces are inflicting on ISIS. Recent operations to retake Sinjar and Ramadi, together with the daily blows of counterterrorism operations, represent tactical progress. This is a testament to the able leadership of the civil-military teams in Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
However, significant challenges remain. The Iraqi government is weak and beholden to Tehran. Iranian controlled-militias are among the strongest forces on the ground, and Tehran is seeking to replicate the Hezbollah model in southern Iraq. The training of Iraqi security forces has been slow, and the building of support for the Sunni tribal forces even slower. At the current pace, Islamic State will still control Mosul and Raqqa, the Syrian city that ISIS claims as its capital, at the end of next year. Meanwhile, ISIS is metastasizing across the region, to Libya especially.
After more than a year of an indecisive military campaign, the U.S. still does not have the initiative. The threat is growing and evolving faster than the administration’s efforts to counter it. What’s needed is a comprehensive civil-military strategy to destroy ISIS quickly, while creating conditions that can prevent it, or a threat like it, from ever re-emerging. In short, America must not only win the war, but also prepare to win the peace. The U.S. has repeatedly failed to do this, and cannot afford to yet again.
Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has said that he does not want foreign ground combat forces to be introduced on a large scale. Neither do we. What we do want is additional U.S. troops to perform discrete tasks: improve and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces, especially Sunni tribal fighters; embed with and advise Iraqi units closer to the fight; call in airstrikes from forward positions; and conduct counterterrorism operations. This will likely require two to three times as many forces as the U.S. has in Iraq now.
Ultimately, America must seek to keep these forces in Iraq. If they leave again, the threat will return, and the U.S. will have to intervene once more. The main obstacle, once ISIS is destroyed, is Iran, which seeks to use Iraq as a base from which to project its malign influence. Iraqis must win the peace, but Americans have a major stake in their success, and a unique role to play in helping them. The only way to do so is to be present.
In Syria, there is no coherent strategy to destroy ISIS or negotiate an end to the civil war, which is the only way to win a lasting peace. The administration’s military and political efforts are misaligned. Diplomatically, the White House is seeking a political settlement that removes President Bashar Assad from power. But militarily, by only addressing ISIS and not the Assad regime’s assault on the Syrian people, the administration is effectively acquiescing to the very Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces that are fighting to keep Mr. Assad in power. This will only lengthen the conflict, strengthen ISIS and exacerbate the refugee crisis.
After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the U.S. cannot go on like this. A coherent strategy is necessary to destroy ISIS and end the conflict as soon as possible. America must work with its coalition partners to establish and protect zones inside Syria where refugees can be safe; to deny the Assad regime the use of its air power, especially its horrific barrel bombs; and to impose real costs on Russia if it continues to target moderate opposition groups.
Unlike in Iraq, there is a role for U.S. ground combat forces in Syria. Indigenous fighters such as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Kurds have fought bravely against ISIS. But the reality is that no ground force exists today that is both willing and able to retake Raqqa. Nor will one emerge on its own. So the U.S. should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force, including up to 10,000 American troops, to clear and hold Raqqa and destroy ISIS in Syria. Such a force could also help to keep the peace in a post-Assad Syria, as was done in Bosnia and Kosovo. Here, too, if the West wins the war and leaves, it should not be surprised if violence and extremism return.
Finally, the U.S. needs to seize the initiative and roll back ISIS’ regional expansion. This will require a greater forward presence of U.S. military and intelligence teams that can map its networks and destroy them. At the same time, ISIS’ ability to spread is directly related to the collapse of political order. Unless America does more to help these countries make the transition to just and inclusive governments, ISIS will find havens to pursue its evil ends.
President Obama is fond of invoking lessons from America’s recent wars. The simplest and most important lesson, however, is the one he rarely mentions: Apocalyptic terrorists cannot be allowed to have sanctuary in ungoverned spaces, from which to plan attacks against the West. Over the past seven years, those conditions have grown across the Middle East and Africa. If these threats are not removed now, and quickly, no one should be surprised when America gets attacked again.
Mr. Graham is a U.S. senator from South Carolina. Mr. McCain is a U.S. senator from Arizona. Both are Republicans.
This Op-ed was first published by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, December 8, 2015