For months, the White House has been saying that it has Isis on the run. Yet each week the world sees that Isis is only running forwards. Last week, the US state department briefed that Isis was ‘a significant threat to all of our partners in the region’ and ‘a significant threat to the [US] homeland. We’ve never seen something like this. This is a formidable, enormous threat.’
Which is fine as an observation. But governments aren’t only in a position to make observations. They — and the US government in particular — should be able to answer the question: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The current administration is doing everything it can to downplay expectations on that front. One US state department official recently said: ‘In terms of timing, we’re eight months into what was always a three-year campaign, and it’s three years to degrade.’
Not three years to defeat Isis. Not even three years to send a majority of Isis’s recruits to what they believe is the great whorehouse in the sky. But three years just to get to the ‘end of the beginning’ phase.
By then President Obama will be safely into his post-presidential speech-making career, though it may be a career hard to distinguish from his present role. Last week, as refugees were fleeing from Ramadi and Palmyra — joining the millions who have been displaced from Syria and Iraq in recent years — the President was at America’s Coast Guard Academy, delivering a beautifully wrought speech about the possibility that climate change could create thousands of refugees within the next century.
If over-eagerness was an unfortunate hallmark of the last US administration, a tendency to professorial conjectures followed by doing precisely diddly is the hallmark of this one. It’s too early to say which is more dangerous.
Of course, Obama wanted nothing to do with Iraq and hated inheriting the problem. But his precipitate withdrawal of troops in 2011 and astonishing subsequent insouciance has made it a matter for his successor, too. He has left the country prey both to the almost wholesale political and strategic domination of Iran and to the border-crossing Islamists of Isis — a group whose war-fighting budget is as nothing compared with the Pentagon’s.
With the US intent on keeping no more than 3,000 personnel in the country, the Iraqis inevitably fell back on the Iranians, to an extent which has made Iran the sole power to have significantly benefited from the collapse of authority in the region. Yet the much-vaunted Iranian forces which Iraq and America have felt forced to call upon have not been able to vanquish Isis, even if they ever fully wanted to.
At some point — perhaps when Isis manage to carry out or inspire a large-scale terror attack in the US or, more likely, Europe — people will look back and say: ‘Why did we let this happen?’ The answer will be, as it is now, that we didn’t need to. The US and some of her allies have the weaponry and expertise to smash Isis. It is only will and ambition that we lack.
The White House fears that the US will be dragged into another 100,000-troop deployment. But the choice is not between here or there. The best option is to survey how many special forces are needed and deploy them appropriately. Iraqi special forces have reportedly fought fairly well. It is the nation’s conventional armies that have melted away. So there is no reason why an increased number of Iraqi special forces, combined with outside special forces giving more accurate call-ins to a stepped-up aerial campaign, could not turn things around.
The ambition must be not to degrade Isis, but to decapitate and smash it. The popular idea that Isis is like a hydra is not true. There are significant theological and other disputes over the rights and role of ‘Caliph’ al-Baghdadi. Take out him and other Isis commanders in special operations raids, as we took out Abu Sayyaf in eastern Syria earlier this month, and you can take off the organisation’s head.
But the reproductive organs also need removing. People are only joining Isis because they think it is succeeding. The fastest way to stop that flow is to halt that perception. That is why the aspiration of the US and other governments must shift from rolling Isis back in three years’ time to crushing it now.