The campaign of air strikes against ISIS has now grown to include targets in Syria with support from several Arab states. And in their aftermath, the Administration has wasted little time in describing the effectiveness of these strikes in degrading ISIS capabilities and disrupting ISIS operations.
However, this air-only strategy will never be decisive in the destruction of ISIS. Any hope of fulfilling the stated end state of destroying ISIS requires a viable ground force.
As with most ISIS-related strategies, there are no good options, as every possible ground force is flawed and ill-suited to the tough mission of both dislodging the ISIS army, and working hand-in-hand with the Sunni tribes of the ISIS-occupied areas. In order to be viable, this force must have two essential qualities: competency and compatibility.
The first essential quality is obvious: the force must possess the competence to defeat and dislodge ISIS forces by seizing terrain and executing complex offensive operations. These operations require a broad offensive of hard fighting by conventional forces to defeat and dislodge ISIS forces, coordinated with precise raids by Special Operations Forces (SOF) to attack key leaders and gain valuable intelligence. These conventional and SOF operations are supported by precise strikes from the air, to further degrade the network. This requires a ground force that is capable of conducting the tough village-by-village and block-by-block clearing operation against a well-equipped, well-entrenched ISIS force.
The second, equally critical quality of this ground force in Iraq is that it must be compatible with the reality on the ground. The center of gravity in Iraq is the Sunni population of the occupied areas and the critical task is to incentivize them to cooperate with a ground force to expel ISIS from these occupied Sunni areas. This ground force must be seen by the Sunni population and tribes as a partner with which they could cooperate and one with whom their interests align.
In 2007, the Sunni tribes in Iraq aligned with American forces because they had confidence that US forces would protect them and this relationship would serve their interests. This alignment produced ‘The Sons of Iraq’ and was instrumental in defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq. This symbiotic relationship between an army and the population produces intelligence and enables targeting of ISIS leaders and other critical targets. Another reality in Iraq is that the ground force must be compatible in working for the Shia-led Baghdad government and accept the presence of, and cooperation with, the Shia militias that are operating against ISIS in Iraq.
There is much talk of the “broad international coalition” and listing of some 40 countries that have discussed supporting the counter-ISIS strategy. However, to date, no member of this coalition has expressed interest in participating in the most difficult requirement — ground operations in Iraq. While it is admittedly still early in the hard work of coalition building, it is apparent that there is really no suitable force to conduct ground operations in Iraq. All potential forces are ill-suited, in either competence or compatibility, to fill the critical requirement of a viable ground force.
While several NATO forces are capable of this mission, and possess the competence to defeat ISIS forces on the ground, there are several reasons why this is not a realistic option. First, NATO is exhausted from a decade-plus commitment in Afghanistan, and another open-ended commitment in a distant battlefield is not going to happen. Also, a large contingent of NATO forces operating in Iraq is incompatible with the situation on the ground. ISIS would propagandize and exploit their presence as “occupiers” and there is no evidence that either the Baghdad government nor Sunni population would accept this foreign European force.
The most hoped-for partner is some coalition of regional Arab forces, but this is problematic for several reasons. First, given their diverse competing agendas, it is not clear which regional nations would commit to sending troops to Iraq to fight ISIS. Second, regional forces have no experience in executing the complex, sustained offensive operations to defeat ISIS on the ground. Third, as to the issue of compatibility, the Baghdad government is deeply mistrusted in the region as sectarian-motivated and dominated by Iran. So, will any regional Sunni state commit forces and accept casualties while working alongside, and on behalf of, the Shia Government of Iraq? Would they work alongside Shia/Iranian militias that are sanctioned by the Government of Iraq and are a reality on the ground? While Arab participation in the greater counter-ISIS strategy is desirable, in reality it is little more than a hope. Regional Arab forces are not a viable option for ground operations in Iraq.
The Kurdish forces have demonstrated a fighting spirit and cohesion that are admirable and which stand in stark contrast to the miserable performance of the Iraqi Security Forces to date. But the Kurdish forces are too lightly armed and under-equipped to mount a large counter-offensive against ISIS forces. They have no tanks, no artillery and few of the heavy weapon systems required to dislodge ISIS in large operations.
While the Kurds, with proper external support, have proven capable of defending the Kurdish region, they are not capable of, nor interested in, opening a northern front. The Kurdish Regional Government has conditionally agreed to participate in the Baghdad government for only ninety days. They are focused on protecting the integrity of the Kurdish region, and as I heard several times on a recent visit to Erbil: “why should we fight and die for the Sunnis when they refuse to fight for themselves?” So it is unrealistic to hope for a broad counteroffensive from the Kurdish north to dislodge ISIS.
That leaves the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). In their present state, the ISF cannot successfully meet this ISIS threat, let alone mount a major and effective counteroffensive, without significant assistance. They have failed in almost every tactical attempt to dislodge ISIS, and have suffered a string of tactical setbacks. Preparing ISF for an effective counteroffensive requires extensive preparation; it cannot be thrown together in days or weeks. The ISF’s deficiencies in many areas, to include training, leadership, intelligence, and basic fighting spirit, are deep, systemic failures.
The capabilities necessary to counter ISIS do not exist today in Iraqi Security Forces and they will not likely materialize on their own anytime soon. To improve the ISF to the point of competence will take many months and a far more robust American advising effort than that which is on the ground in Iraq today. Equally troubling, this is a force that is despised and feared by the Sunni population of Iraq; it is anathema to the very group that is essential to success in this strategy. The Sunnis deeply mistrust the ISF, see them as a force of subjugation and believe they are an Iranian-dominated Shia army. In its current state, the ISF are neither competent nor compatible as a viable ground force option.
So, right now we may have gained a few partners in air operations and in offers to train the ISF, and this is very positive. But, without a competent and compatible ground force, this “comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy” is doomed to be neither comprehensive nor effective in counter-terrorism.
This is the reality in Iraq. In Syria, the task of finding a viable ground force really gets tough.