Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby briefs reporters on the latest developments in the fight against ISIS, Oct. 21, 2014 (Photo: Department of Defense)
Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby briefs reporters on the latest developments in the fight against ISIS, Oct. 21, 2014 (Photo: Department of Defense)

By Harry C. Blaney III

There has been a great effort by many commentators (in the media and politicians) about how our strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS (known also as Islamic State) has already failed. Most of these saber rattlers have an ax to grind against the current administration or have a desire to push their own interests, rather than a long-term perspective of what this struggle is in reality and recognition that this is a long game and military action is but one tool.

There have been many cries of mostly right-wing pundits, neo-con followers, and uninformed and partisan politicians urging an unthoughtful precipitous insertion of American troops into Syria and Iraq. Their arguments have often been that air power alone will not degrade and defeat ISIS.  What they miss is that a strategy of Americans fighting alone in an unknown ground filled with complex and murky conflicts, frail alliances, and historical tribal antecedents is the wrong use of our valued combat ground troops.

The proof of the pudding is Obama’s focus on careful but constant use of our air, logistics, intelligence, training capabilities, and especially of strong and focused diplomacy, remains our best hope to prevail at the least cost and aiming at the long-term sustainability of local governments and allies. It is a good example of “not doing stupid stuff.” It is doing smart stuff.

The possible turn around in Kobani is an early test and as with all conflict situations remains a work in progress. Mistakes have been made, as reports that an air drop intended for the besieged Kurds ended up in the hands of ISIS, yet it is likely that Kobani will survive as a result of hundreds of American and allied air strikes, the supply of munitions and medical supplies, and the work of American diplomacy, not only in getting wide air participation by our European and Arab allies, but now most importantly in getting the previously reluctant Turkish government to permit Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to cross the Turkish-Syrian border to help defend Kobani. But we will not hear from the Republicans praise of this strategy. Rather, we hear cries to vacuously send more troops and vague demands to do more ourselves.

But of equal importance are our efforts to train, and in some cases retrain, Iraqi forces and to urge a unified Shia-Sunni Iraqi government to share power and fight a common enemy. The other is to build a balanced and difficult strategy in Syria to train “moderate” forces to fight ISIS on the ground, but do so in a way that least advantages Syria’s almost equally brutal Assad regime, and prepare those moderate forces for that eventual battle with Assad. This will take time as Obama has said. Behind that strategy is likely a number of not yet seen acts to prepare for that day.

What has become ironic is the most recent statement made by U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) supporting Obama’s actions to address Kobani’s vulnerability, in what has got to be the most deceptive and disingenuous statement around, urged Obama to do what he has already been doing! The implication (for their ignorant audience) is that Obama’s actions and strategy do not exist. So much for the desire to tell the truth!  Here is part of the statement:

“Degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS will require additional actions that we have long advocated, such as the deployment of U.S. Special Forces and military advisers on the ground to direct airstrikes and advise our local partners; the expansion of assistance for moderate Syrian forces, and the establishment of safe zones protected by no fly zones in Syria.”

While there is much one can debate about the details of tactics, many experts believe that our balanced and careful approach seems to be our best option in a situation with very few good options. There is always a high risk in war, and uncertainties are large, but for that very reason a carefully focused footprint is better than a blind and stupid big boot on ground that we only partially understand.

More in future posts on our strategy and the political debate about American policy in a complex and conflict ridden world.

We welcome your comments!

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