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Two months ago we laid out a plan on these pages to bring Iraq back from the abyss of terrorist domination, turn the tide in the Syria conflict, and crush the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The need for such a plan is now more urgent as ISIS has since advanced dramatically, the Iraqi army and Kurdish militia initially performed poorly, and the terror group has threatened to kill more Americans as it did James Foley last week.
President Obama has so far ordered some 1,100 troops into Iraq and conducted close to 100 airstrikes. While it is important that the president has recognized the growing threat to U.S. security, these limited tactical measures will neither permanently reverse ISIS gains nor address the maelstrom in the Middle East. A combined political, economic and military strategy is needed, and one element without the others will likely doom the effort.
First, the political challenge: The Islamic State, like its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda itself, has its roots in the swamp of Arab political life. Extremists gain purchase because the region’s leaders have delivered so little to the hundreds of millions over whom they rule. The Obama administration appeared to recognize this problem when it demanded the ouster of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had estranged the nation’s Sunni tribes, leading some to welcome ISIS from Syria.
Regional leaders are aware of these problems and exploit them through proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and the Palestinian territories. This is a recipe for endless conflict, and those leaders should be forced into a dialogue to resolve grievances and develop a regional strategy to defeat ISIS, al Qaeda and their ideological brethren.
Only the United States has the clout to convene such a summit. Only the U.S. can demand real change, and only the U.S can offer security reassurances to turn the political tide in the Middle East.
In particular, the time has come to confront the government of Qatar, which funds and arms ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups such as Hamas. The tiny Gulf potentate has never had to choose between membership in the civilized world or continuing its sponsorship of regional killers. The U.S. has the most leverage. We have alternatives to our Combined Air and Operations Center in Doha, the al Udeid air base, other bases and prepositioned materiel. We should tell Qatar to end its support for terrorism or we leave.
Second, the economic challenge: ISIS may now be the richest terror group in the world. Through hostage taking, criminality, conquest and outside financial support, ISIS is building a war chest measuring in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It has portfolio managers, bankers and other accouterments of a proto-Treasury.
These facilitators have not come under pressure in the way the West has challenged al Qaeda and Iran’s bankers. The intelligence is available to exert this pressure, but the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world are moving at a glacial pace.
Third, the military component: ISIS is at war and wants to control as much territory as possible. Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon are in the group’s sights. The Islamic State wants to control oil fields, financial and political centers and create a quasi-state with self-proclaimed emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in charge.
President Obama has “limited” action to protect American personnel and selected refugees, but even his tactical air strikes to help reclaim the Mosul Dam and the slow ramp-up of advisers are inadequate to meet the threat. A military campaign is needed to defeat ISIS, not merely stop or contain it.
Contrary to some claims, this is not a plan for a new American ground war in Iraq seeking to reconstitute a failed state. It is a mission to help Iraqis and Syrians on the ground help themselves. A U.S.-led international coalition can provide the military capability, including air interdiction to deny ISIS freedom of movement, take away its initiative to attack at will in Iraq, and dramatically reduce its sanctuary in Syria.
Political and military leaders must recognize that Iraq and Syria are indivisible in this conflict. The group must be defeated in both places.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has said ISIS cannot be defeated “without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria.” Like the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, the Free Syrian Army needs heavy weapons, ammunition and supplies. And Washington is also blocking the delivery of much-needed weapons and equipment already purchased by the Iraqi military. Arming allies to fight a common enemy cannot be an afterthought.
U.S. military support will be key: The U.S. Central Command has a list of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, including staging bases for equipment and troops, supply bases, training areas for foreign fighters, command and control and frontline troop positions. Advisers and trainers are also needed by the thousands, not hundreds, to assist the Peshmerga, reconstitute the Iraqi army, and assist Sunni tribes now opposing ISIS who must join this fight. Close air support will also be vital.
Baghdadi and his senior leaders aren’t invulnerable, and U.S. special operations forces should be given the mission to target, kill and capture ISIS leaders. We targeted senior terrorist leaders once in Iraq and still do in Afghanistan and elsewhere. ISIS should be no different, particularly after its brutal murder of Foley.
None of these steps are sufficient by themselves to defeat a capable, motivated and well-armed terrorist group. Much will depend on the effectiveness of the combined ground force backed by consistent air power. But failure means the destabilization of the Middle East, terrible bloodshed and, ultimately, the murder of more Americans. A comprehensive strategy is the only realistic choice to defeat ISIS, and the time is long past to get serious.
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