The rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East is, to be certain, shocking to Western sensibilities and seems so sudden that it requires an equally swift and shocking response. In Washington, Congress has clamored for one, and President Barack Obama seems to be promising just that.
On the face of it, an American political and military response to the Islamic State would entail airstrikes, the likely involvement of special operations units and — depending upon who is doing the talking — an effort to “destroy” the Islamic State.
But the reality is this: It’s not that simple. Nothing of a military nature ever is, particularly in the Middle East where promises of months become years and decades. The Islamic State is nearly as close to being a state as is, say, Iraq. Air power alone cannot change politics on the ground. And Obama is playing very fast and loose with military terms that have particular meanings: To “destroy” an enemy’s capabilities is not to “defeat” him.
Americans may bemoan another protracted military commitment in the Middle East, but in truth we never left. We didn’t leave after the first Gulf War nearly 25 years ago; pilots rotating to the region called it going back to “the sandbox.” The 2003 invasion of Iraq speaks for itself. Now, the presence not just of aircraft carriers but Persian Gulf bases launching B-1B bombers speaks to the present day.
The notion that we left with the end of the Iraq war is nearly as much an illusion, put forth by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, as the idea that major combat operations there ended with the pronouncement of George W. Bush. I always thought it curious that there were no major homecoming parades for troops who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Perhaps that was because neither was a clear-cut victory. Or perhaps that was because, in reality, we stayed.
So far, the administration’s strategy toward the Islamic State is more of the same. A glance at a present-day map shows that the Islamic State is essentially an emerging country right in the heart of the old Sykes-Piquot map, occupying about 40 percent of Syria and, completely disregarding the old border, a similar amount of Iraq. Indeed, the Islamic State made a show recently of bulldozing the sand berm at that boundary. The borders of Sykes-Piquot are blurring quickly as national governments flail and the Arab world falls back on tribal and family structures.
An insightful study by former Army intelligence officer Jessica Lewis at the Center for the Study of War reveals that the Islamic State is not so much a terrorist network as something more akin to a nascent state, which is hastening this new reality — replete with ideology, bureaucratic organization, tax revenues and certain military capabilities and requirements. The Islamic State has areas of firm control — straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, a major city in each country — lines of communication and areas of operation on its frontier where it threatens to expand, such as where Anbar province abuts Baghdad.
Attacking the Islamic State from the air is entirely possible. Disrupting its movements, degrading its capabilities through targeted killings and denying it access to resources — human and financial — also is possible. Destroying military capabilities like captured equipment? No problem, as long as airstrikes occur in Syria, too, not just Iraq.
But defeating the Islamic State altogether and replacing it with some other political order unlike, say, the chaos of Libya? That is a different matter altogether, which in any scenario requires ground forces. And if not American troops, then whose? The Syrian Army? No. The Syrian moderates who the president decried this summer as a “fantasy”? No. The Iraqi or Saudi armies?
Not a chance. Both armies suffer from the politicization, the tribal division and the same compartmentalized knowledge and training that has plagued Arab armies for decades. Neither has had successful or significant experience in combined arms, fighting in combination with artillery and air cover. The Iraqi army is a $26 billion boondoggle. The Saudi army has never seen combat, unless you count it beating a hasty withdrawal from the Kuwaiti border in 1990.
Conversely, the entry of American ground forces as at least a vanguard of an allied, if token, Arab force would be the only remedy — but in an ironic twist, that is precisely what the Islamic State hopes will happen. While it has broken with al-Qaida, its basic ideology is precisely the same, based upon an apocalyptic battle with the West, this time in Syria. This is precisely what al-Qaida achieved for a decade with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Right now, it seems impossible that we would make the same mistake again, but what if Iraqi, Saudi or Jordanian troops needed help? Would we really leave them to be defeated and massacred? Here is where the president and his supporters in Congress are playing fast and loose. Arab militaries are not up to the task. If they were, they would not need American help.
Barring the new fantasy — of Arab boys doing the job of American boys as LBJ might have cracked in reverse — there is no defeat of the Islamic State in the offing for a very long time, a period not measured in months and maybe not in a few years, either. Containment by air is possible but that is a process measured in many years, at the very least. Consider that American air power contained Iraq’s military after the first Gulf War — but that lasted 12 years, until the invasion.
Then again, in reality, American military involvement in the Middle East actually is measured in decades and it will be until the day that the last drop of oil runs out. For the president and the Congress to promise otherwise is at best fantasy and at worst, a lie. We are still out there defending those imaginary lines in the sand, even as they shift all around us.