Small Wars Journal

Some Questions for Those Pushing for US Troops Against ISIS

Mon, 02/16/2015 - 4:44am

Some Questions for Those Pushing for US Troops Against ISIS

Keith Nightingale

Since ISIS has become prominent for a variety of issues - all bad, there has been a steady drumbeat for US boots on the ground to resolve the problems. These range from:

  • Restoring land and people to the legitimate government of Iraq (GOI),
  • Saving the Yazidi’s from destruction,
  • Assisting our strong allies the Kurds in reclaiming their land,
  • Saving hostages held by ISIS,
  • Occupying Syria with a anti-government faction in ISIS-controlled territory of Syria,
  • Killing/eliminating a brutish bunch of thugs.

Several members of Congress have been particularly vocal in their call for boots on the ground intervention and they assisted the process by establishing a 10,000 man combat force as the suggested base incursion unit package.  As intelligent, long term members of the Beltway Business Corporation, they neglected to identify the devil in the details which they undoubtedly already knew.  Those pesky facts regarding Invasion 101 always create issues when the responsible decision-makers get together on the subject.  Here are some of the basics on the issue provided as a cheat sheet/service for those clamoring for engagement.

  1. Where is the request/invitation from the Government of Iraq?  Unless we no longer care, the Government of Iraq (GOI)  has to invite us to fight on its land.  Earlier, the GOI would not sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which caused our initial precipitate withdrawal.  Would they sign one now to protect the 10,000 plus suggested?  If not, do we occupy the land absent a SOFA or an invitation? One of the advantages our absence from the scene created for the previous PM was that he had an unfettered hand in eliminating the Sunni senior officers and cadre from his military and government.  Since ISIS is a Sunni-based entity primarily in historic Sunni lands, do we suggest that Sunni affiliated personalities be reinstated into the GOI military, security and civil structure?  How will that play in Baghdad?  Who are we really supporting if we do eliminate ISIS  as an entity?
  1. After we kill all the bad guys and restore the land what happens?  Creating a power vacuum from the deceased ISIS necessitates a backfill on the part of the GOI.  Again, does GOI re-galvanize its eliminated Sunni cadre or try and impose law and civil services with Shi’a personalities?  Unless the GOI can adequately backfill in ISIS-land, our 10,000 have to be a de facto occupation force.  Is this part of the plan?  How do we manage this in country and what sort of guidance do we provide the ground commander?
  1. What about the rest of the force-who are they and where are they?  10,000 combat personnel will require a support package considerably larger than that.  Mobility and aerial support, crucial to success, will be key force multipliers.  Fixed and rotary wing aircraft require significant stockpiles of ammo, fuel and parts and a dramatically significant support structure. If the 10,000 are envisioned as being self-supporting, that means less than 2,500 could be direct action personnel.  The size of the territory to be contested would consume that number easily and greatly limit the flexibility and response capabilities of our commander on the ground.  Concurrently, if the order is for the 10,000 to go “lean and mean/austere,” that practically means they have about five days of operational capability and then begin starving in the sand absent decent backup.
  1. What about Syria?  There are some difficult conundrums here before we sally forth into ISIS-Land.  The primary Syrian rebel force, ostensibly our allies in this endeavor,  are  Sunni (friends of ISIS).  Among this force is considerable AQ structure.  How do we separate the rebels/AQ from the Syrian equation?  This is particularly vexing in a post-occupation scenario where the land we (US) occupy now has to be backfilled by rebels.  When Bad Guy Mullah X, recently returned from Afghanistan,  is announced as the head of Province A, what do we do?
  1. How do we manage our regional allies against ISIS?  Our supposed strongest partner in the region, Saudi Arabia, is the bastion of the Sunni faith and mortally opposed to the Sh’ia.  Will our Sunni allies now rally around the GOI and Sh’ia interests to suppress ISIS?  Note the amount of money and fighters flowing to ISIS in Syria and ISIS-controlled land in Iraq.  Will these countries provide us access and support for our 10,000 man incursion bent on destroying their expatriate citizens? Several of our allies have their own agenda’s viz a viz ISIS and other allies.  The Turks do not want the Kurds to gain support or power yet they are the strongest combat force against ISIS.  How do we manage two allies in conflict with each other?  Syria has a substantial Sh’ia population and the present government is strongly backed by both the PRC and Russia.  Have we just built a larger tar baby by attempting to overthrow/occupy Syria? Iran is the key Sh’ia supporter for the present GOI.  If we support the restoration of lands to the GOI, are we not supporting Iran’s regional objectives while trying to pressure them to acede to our nuclear limitation objective?
  1. How long do we stay?  This has always been a crucial and largely unanswered question before execute orders are signed.  We seem to run out of patience, interest and funds after a couple of months of news cycles.  Invading and occupying a vast area in the Middle East (half of Syria and a third of Iraq) will require a lot of people and things to maintain stability-even with our Uniforms there.  Training competent backfill personalities from Iraq and Syria will take considerable time and resource commitment.   Will we have the patience?  If we make an arbitrary deadline and just do it-withdraw-we create the same vacuums that nurtured ISIS in the first place.  If so, what are we doing there in the first place?
  1. Can we just send in SOF to rescue hostages and decapitate the leadership?  Sounds good but reality is lot more chilling than a cold bath.  Crucial to any SOF op is high quality intelligence.  We proved in Iraq and Yemen that SOF doesn’t always get what it needs.  Intel takes time, resources and associations.  The same issues that apply to conventional incursion apply to SOF-See all Above.
  1. Is this important to our Nation or just a knee jerk focus group issue de jour?  Where you stand depends on where you sit.  ISIS is a horrible actor by our standards and should, as a minimum, be contained if not eliminated.  Hostages, ours and others, need to be repatriated.  Jihad John needs to receive justice.  But-what are we prepared to pay to achieve those ends?  What is truly important to our National interests here?  If we do nothing, are there real substantive consequences?  What if our allies in the region make it clear they would rather we not return?  Do we ignore or press on?  These are questions only the National Leadership can answer but they have to be internally asked and answered if a new introduction of US forces is contemplated.  We are the strongest Nation on the planet and we can pretty much do exactly what we want to do at any time.  The real question then is:  Because we can do something, does that mean we should do something?


Move Forward

Mon, 02/16/2015 - 12:27pm

<blockquote>1. Where is the request/invitation from the Government of Iraq?</blockquote>
Behind the scenes negotiation must occur to convince al-Abadi that he should consider ridding himself of the problem by allowing self-rule of Sunni and Kurd areas. It could be a federalist system or new nations. Sunni members of the Iraq Army would go to Sunni areas. Shiite militias and Iranian forces would remain in theirs with the Peshmerga securing the north. If at some point, al-Abadi could not be convinced, your first words “unless we no longer care” would apply. We would pull out of the Green Zone moving to Jordan and Kurd areas. I suspect that just as Syria has been smart enough not to interfere with our fight against ISIS, Iraq would see the wisdom in not taking on an armored BCT and Marine units. An armored BCT could move north from Jordan and Marines could be air-inserted to Kurd-controlled areas (remember Bashur?) to clear the Tigris and Euphrates river cities of ISIS elements.

<blockquote>2. After we kill all the bad guys and restore the land what happens?</blockquote>Outlaw’s link elsewhere speaks of “quietist Salafis” and more moderate Muslims. These (and radicals) exist in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq/Syria in adequate numbers to include their respective militaries. If al-Abadi agrees to let Sunni GOI Army units and Kurd elements accompany our armored BCT and Marines, they would stay behind to clear and stabilize the cities cleared by our forces. If they don’t agree, the Kurds would agree on their own and Jordan and moderate Sunnis (maybe Egyptians and Saudis) would follow us coming from Jordan.

<blockquote>3. What about the rest of the force-who are they and where are they?</blockquote>Why is 10,000 the magic number? That may eventually be the correct number split between Jordan and the new Kurd state. However, for the initial assault, more ground troops probably are required helped in part if some Jordan, Saudi, and Egyptian military units participate. Who knows, maybe even Turkey could be convinced if it knew Assad’s rule would end and a new Kurd state would attract Kurds from Turkey. Yeah, I know, this is a lot of idealistic speculation but it's probably more realistic than believing slow motion training of a few thousand moderate rebels will repel ISIS control.

<blockquote>4. What about Syria?</blockquote>That is the whole problem. The current NSS and airpower efforts completely omit ending Assad’s rule that created daesh in the first place. Again, a diplomatic solution must exist to offer Assad a financed withdrawal from power with U.S. assurances that Sunnis would not slaugher Alawites or move into territories of the western mountains and southern cities that would become a new non-Sunni state. The U.S. would be in Jordan and Kurd areas of Syria to enforce this with airpower and air assaults, as required. Bad Guy Mullah X and his forces can be monitored and if necessary targeted by Reapers flying out of Jordan and Kurdish territories.

<blockquote>5. How do we manage our regional allies against ISIS?</blockquote>If we convince them that we will back a moderate Sunni state extending into both former Syrian areas and Anbar province, they likely will see this as an acceptable alternative to Shiite control of all of Iraq and Syria. They probably would not invade either country without U.S. ground forces leading, but probably could envision helping stabilize Sunni river cities if convinced that the alternative is a continued daesh presence growing stronger and threatening to spread.

<blockquote>6. How long do we stay?</blockquote>How long did we stay in South Korea and Germany/Italy? How long have we been in the Balkans, Japan, and the Sinai? How long have we had a forward deployed sea presence? As long as forces are in safer areas like Jordan and a new Kurd state and forces rotate every 7-9 months without extensive infrastructure, it would appear a sustainable presence until new states can fully stabilize themselves. Supplies traveling through Jordan and Turkey do not appear to be a major issue other than convincing Turkey that a Kurdish state is not a threat with our presence there.

<blockquote>7. Can we just send in SOF to rescue hostages and decapitate the leadership?</blockquote>No, for the reasons you state. However, after the initial OIF-like armored invasion, follow-on raiding of such SOF/SF forces, airborne, air assault, and light infantry and Marine MV-22 forces from Jordan and the new Kurd state (and possibly al-Assad airbase) is feasible along with Reaper/Predator/Gray Eagle flights, attack helicopters, and CAS. This assumes that Sunni moderate security forces from the former Iraq Army and Syrian moderate rebel forces are securing river cities in the new Sunni state.

<blockquote>8. Is it important to our Nation of just a knee jerk focus group issue de jour?</blockquote>We see ISIS spreading to Libya and Egypt requesting U.S. assistance there. We see it spreading to the Sinai on Israel’s border. ISIS-controlled areas come perilously close to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon and Hezbollah is near the Golan Heights posing a related separate threat. The problem is that Assad and GOI have extensive Iranian influence that Sunni states and Israel reject. Unless a new moderate “quietist Salafi” state exists in the former Syria and Iraq, there can never be peace there. The “caliphate” message will spread and Iranian influence will increase in Iraq and Syria which moderate Sunni states and Israel don’t desire. Our national interest is prevention of nuclear and terror proliferation and an Israeli preemptive nuclear strike.

Small terror attacks are unavoidable but eventually another 9/11 will occur potentially involving WMD of a nuclear, chemical, or biological nature. Most states would understand the potential for U.S. and Israeli retaliation from such attacks. A caliphate or Iranian theocracy might not believing it would facilitate the reappearance of the 12th Imam or the final apocalyptic battles in northern Syria and Jerusalem. We can’t have nut-jobs or zealots controlling nuclear weapons. Russia also wants to retain its Syrian port and would require some sort of acceptable alternative to Assad control. We don’t want to be fighting daesh, Iran, and Russia simultaneously.

I would flip your final question around and ask if the real question is this: Because we can do nothing or too little, does that mean it will work?