Defeating ISIS Will Require American Troops on the Ground
The third brutal beheading of a Westerner by the terrorists of the “Islamic State” (a”Šk”Ša ISIS a”Šk”Ša ISIL) tells us one thing unmistakably: They’re not deterred by President Obama’s rhetoric or threats of future action against them.
Their barbarism is exceeded only by their contempt for the United States and its allies, in the Middle East and globally.
It’s time to confront the unambiguous reality that destroying ISIS — which even Obama says is (ultimately) his goal — urgently requires American combat troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. And the time is right now, not years from now.
No amount of wishful thinking or political cowardice can change the fact we are at war, a one-syllable word even the White House now uses.
As unattractive as this conclusion is, failure to accept it leads directly to the near-certainty that a new, decidedly terrorist state is being born in the Middle East, a magnet for jihadis worldwide.
The three beheadings sadly represent only a tiny fraction of the innocents murdered to date. Other ISIS videos show mass murders of Sunni militia fighters and civilian Christians, Yazidis and Muslims slaughtered in as-yet-unknown numbers.
More is undoubtedly to come. Every passing day allows ISIS to consolidate its control over a territory roughly the size of Great Britain. New estimates of Islamic State fighters have risen to over 30,000. While ISIS’ Iraq offensive has been blunted, it is hardly retreating.
Despite this mountain of evidence and atrocities, the administration displays neither a sense of urgency nor determination.
Although the president’s performance has been appalling in many respects, one error is particularly important. Obama has said emphatically that America’s military response will not include US combat troops fighting where ISIS holds sway in Iraq or Syria.
Equally troubling, most politicians of both parties have also run from the issue. In campaign season, candor is hard to find.
Instead, the ponderous conventional wisdom of the political operatives that Americans are “war weary” is thick in the air. Outdated opinion polls are cited as if they are blocks of granite rather than changeable snapshots of the public’s views.
Times have changed, and conventional political wisdom must change with it. In the weeks surrounding the 13th anniversary of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, we’re being attacked again.
No one wanted those terrorist attacks, or any that came before or after. Unfortunately, we don’t get to decide what the terrorists do. And they are far from weary.
Here are the reasons we should understand immediately that destroying ISIS requires direct involvement by US ground forces:
First, a critical reason for Iraq’s disintegration was the 2011 withdrawal of all American troops, thus eliminating meaningful US influence over then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Iran-dominated government, and thereby allowing sectarian animosities to re-emerge with a vengeance.
Keeping our troops in Iraq three years ago was the better course, and it is even more true today that our visible, palpable involvement is crucial both militarily and politically. Iraq’s factions are far more able to work together when America is committed to success there.
Second, it is wholly erroneous to argue that Washington should rely exclusively on other countries’ ground forces against ISIS.
If they truly see ISIS as a threat that must be destroyed to protect our homeland and our citizens, are Obama and other opponents of boots on the ground really arguing that America’s safety depends on the performance of Sunni tribal militias, the Iraqi army and the Kurds?
Is Obama prepared to say that, if those forces aren’t up to the task, he’ll simply accept the Islamic State’s continued growth? If so, let him say it expressly, and let the American people judge accordingly.
Third, it courts disaster to rely on local ground forces first and resort to Americans only when all else has failed.
That would mean (“ultimately” as Obama would doubtless say) that we’d enter the ground fight only after ISIS’ conventional troops were tested in battle and proved themselves effective against their opponents.
Moreover, the time lost under this approach would let ISIS consolidate even further its control and defenses over the territory it now holds, meaning inevitably that the cost in terms of our casualties will undoubtedly be much higher.
Truly, Americans don’t want another war. But whether or not Obama and Washington’s conventional wisdom understand it, Americans want ISIS and jihadism even less.
Political leaders who understand both this hard reality, and our fellow citizens’ steel and determination, are urgently needed.
John Bolton is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This article was originally published by The New York Post.