On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Obama’s speech on his strategy to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was honest and forceful, laying out the risks of intensifying America’s conflict with ISIL and the consequences if we allow these extremists to ravage the region and grow. The Commander-in-Chief rightly tipped his cap to Congress, whose authorization he believes isn’t necessary but whose funds he’ll gladly accept for this campaign.
The military portion of the strategy features three components – continuing the air campaign; expanding the train-advise-assist mission for Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish peshmerga and selected Sunni tribes (that sounds familiar); and the destruction of ISIL sanctuaries inside war-ravaged Syria. But I found this approach particularly deficient in one area firmly rooted in terra firma.
To wit: I’ve never seen a air-dropped bomb (no matter how “smart”) seize and hold ground, coax sheikhs from the fence to the battlefield, or persuade villagers that siding with the righteous also meant siding with a guy you met for the first time yesterday. I’ve never seen a bomb lead, poke and prod unwilling partners out of their racks and into hot, dusty streets, to reassure people that the guys with guns in the daylight would be there to protect, at least this day. And I’ve never seen a bomb discriminate friend from foe by reading his body language and that of those around him.
The president promised that U.S. ground troops participating in this campaign against ISIS would only be advising and assisting and not “combat troops.” The distinction between advisory and combat troops is pure folly. Trouble can find you regardless of the asterisk by your name, whether you’re teaching someone how to shoot straight in relatively safe Baghdad or patrolling a neighborhood in ISIL-controlled Qaim. A grunt on the ground holding a rifle is the politically inconvenient – but operationally necessary and dangerous – truth that the political leadership needs to appreciate if we want to win this little war.
The other inconvenient truth is an inclusive Shia-led government in Baghdad that neutralizes the greatest incentive for Sunni fence-sitters to take up arms against the central authority. Save that fantasy for another day.
I’ll end with a thought from the underrated philosopher Mike Tyson, who once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”