As any war fighter knows, the enemy always gets a vote on the battlefield. Just because we quit the Iraq war in 2011, doesn’t mean our enemies did.
Case in point: the rise ISIS -- now a self-declared Islamic State -- in Iraq and Syria. Last week, it shook the collective American consciousness with its beheading of U.S. journalist and New Hampshire native, James Foley. But that was merely the latest demonstration of their brutal, systematic -- and growing -- radical Islamic movement.
While the situation is complex, and blame shared, it is now clear that President Obama’s single-minded rush to remove all U.S. forces from Iraq -- while simultaneously botching our (non)-policy in Syria -- created the power vacuum these barbaric Islamists have rushed to fill.
The question is -- what should the U.S. do to stop a full-fledged Islamic terrorist state brandishing a well-financed, well-equipped, and growing army?
Thankfully, even before the Foley beheading, there is a growing bipartisan consensus for forceful action. “We have bad choices and the worst choice is to do nothing,” Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Fox News Sunday. Democrats and Republicans have echoed his sentiment.
ISIS is the most well-funded, well-equipped, and heavily manned Islamic terrorist organization the world has ever seen; more potent, brazen, and dangerous than even Al Qaeda before 9/11.
Most significantly, their ranks include thousands of American and European passport-holders—many of whom are being trained, right now, to export their terror back home. We are foolish to believe that attacking the U.S. homeland is not their core, and urgent, goal.
As such, secretary John Kerry rightly asserted last week that the U.S. must crush this new Islamic State. If that is the goal, and I believe it should be, then a larger -- and far more aggressive -- U.S. troop presence is needed in Iraq, as well as portions of Syria.
If ISIS sees no borders, then we cannot afford to either. And while U.S. airstrikes have provided tactical breathing room for American advisors and Kurdish allies, that progress is only cosmetic -- and unsustainable without more forces on the ground.
History does not side with half-measures in the face of advancing enemies.
As a combat veteran of Iraq and senior counterinsurgency instructor in Afghanistan, I can testify, in practice and with historical perspective, that in order to defeat an enemy like this all levers of American power must be on the table -- and that includes U.S. boots on the ground.
Emboldened insurgencies, especially those as advanced as ISIS, cannot be defeated with one hand behind a country’s back; nor, can they be simply “contained” in today’s hyper-connected world.
Yet, because it’s Iraq, a long shadow of doubt about U.S. military action exists, with many Americans understandably anxious about another long-term engagement or nation building exercise.
However, this mission needn’t be lengthy nor about nation building, because the Iraq of 2014 is not the Iraq of 2003 or 2006.
Should U.S. trigger-pullers return to Iraq, they would enjoy certain advantages we didn’t have 11 years ago or during the darkest days of the war.
Today, most importantly, Baghdad -- the capitol and epicenter of the country -- is not contested. The vast majority of US efforts, especially during the violent surge of 2007, were centered on subduing Baghdad and it’s belts. That is not the case today; meaning Iraqi and U.S. forces can focus their efforts on projecting power north and west.
Speaking of Iraqi forces, while they initially folded under ISIS pressure, they have since stabilized -- especially because they've become empowered by Kurdish forces in the north. American troops, advisers, and even air power can immediate partner with Kurdish forces and core Iraqi divisions to take the fight to ISIS.
Moreover, unlike the Baathist and indigenous insurgency we faced early in the Iraq war, ISIS militants today lack a true internal power base since most of them are not from Iraq, and have fleeting support. Their lack of internal support will make “mowing the lawn” much easier.
In 2014, the U.S. military also has far more intelligence and experience navigating the terrain, geography and geopolitical realities of Iraq than we did before. The learning curve is minimal; the enemy less entrenched, and core Iraqi institutions—government, army, and infrastructure—largely intact.
This action-oriented approach is all premised on a principle the Obama administration refuses to learn: that political progress is hastened by military progress. Only once moderate military forces are advancing on the battlefield, do moderate, Western-oriented politicians gain the upper hand and start seeking political consensus. And once ISIS is defeated, the U.S. must learn the lessons of 2009 -- we must leave a residual military and diplomatic presence in Iraq in place to secure the hard-fought gains.
This process will not be easy. We will have setbacks. But, in order to mitigate these risks, time is of the essence. The more ISIS is allowed to select, fortify, and connect their defensive positions, the more difficult our military advance will be. We need to move soon, and decisively, to both defeat the Islamic State and minimize our causalities and costs.
Disinterest and disengagement in Iraq and Syria has failed, and as recent events show, America “leading from behind” does not work. The United States cannot afford to do nothing. We must act and must defeat this vicious enemy.
It’s time for President Obama to shed the ghosts of 2003, learn the lessons of 2007, discard the demons of 2009, and face the threat of 2014 in Iraq today. America’s strength and security depends on it.