The Price of Defeating the Islamic State.
By Steven Metz, Sept. 5, 2014
Destroying the Islamic State would be a very good thing. The Obama administration seems to be accepting this, at least slowly and grudgingly. The danger, though, is that American political leaders and strategic thinkers will reprise their tradition of overestimating U.S. power and underestimating the costs of destroying a fanatical transnational terrorist organization. The most popular idea in Washington, for instance, is to increase U.S. airstrikes and pump up support for the Iraqi security forces, regional militias and the less extreme elements of the Syrian resistance. This will damage the Islamic State but not destroy it. The organization is too ingrained in eastern Syria and western Iraq and too flush with resources and recruits. The strategic price of decisively defeating it will be much higher.
For starters, doing so will require a sustained air campaign. Even when aircraft or drones are not actually hitting targets on the ground, they must be available to do so at a moment's notice. The U.S. military, particularly the Air Force, is the only one capable of sustaining something like this for the years it may take, but it is already under significant stress. Unless public opinion and political dynamics in the U.S. change suddenly, sequestration will return and the defense budget will shrink further. Protracted operations in Iraq and Syria will make it harder to rebuild the U.S. military in the face of Chinese military modernization and renewed Russian aggression. Part of the strategic price for defeating the Islamic State, then, may be to make Beijing and Moscow even less hesitant to use military intimidation in their respective regions.
The Islamic State cannot be destroyed without cooperation from the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, so part of the price of doing so will be to increase the chances that Assad will cling to power. Retired Marine Gen. John Allen and Richard Clarke, the longtime White House counterterrorism expert, have said as much. Malcom Rifkind, the chairman of the United Kingdom’s Intelligence and Security Committee, and Gen. Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, agree, as do many U.S. security experts. Perhaps this was Assad's plan all along. That would explain why he largely avoided attacking what became the Islamic State as it formed, knowing that it would make him seem the lesser evil. If so, it is working.
As a result, another big part of the price of defeating the Islamic State will be to boost Iran's flagging regional influence, as Assad's survival would benefit Tehran. The Iraqi government, too, would be even more in thrall to Tehran after the Islamic State’s defeat. Unlike the U.S., Iran rushed support and troops to back Baghdad at the height of the Islamic State’s offensive. For Iraqi Shiites, this showed once again that in times of need, Iran is always there, while the United States may or may not be. Thus the longer it takes to destroy the Islamic State, the more that Iraq—whatever is left of it—will become a compliant Iranian ally.
Defeating the Islamic State will require the active participation of local militias. Conventional militaries, whether Iraqi, American or those from some other nation, may break up the Islamic State's conventional troop formations, but only militias have the persistent presence and local intelligence needed to keep terrorists at bay. Once the Kurdish and Sunni Arab militias are better armed and taste victory, they will resist disarming and ceding power back to Baghdad. The Sunni Arab militias vividly remember that they did so after the defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq a few years ago with disastrous results. Hence part of the strategic price of defeating the Islamic State will be ending any hope of a unitary, inclusive Iraq. Most likely, Iraq will formally break into two or three states, probably “faux democracies” dominated by strong men, whether civilian or military.
Active American involvement in defeating the Islamic State will, unfortunately, fuel the perception that Washington supports stability but not justice in the Middle East. Even many Muslims appalled by the barbarity of the Islamic State believe that it was born of legitimate grievances among the Sunni Arabs. Support flowed and supporters flocked to it in part because the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and the Western-designed international system were considered unjust. The U.S. can help save the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad but cannot force it to make the sort of concessions that would satisfy Iraq's Sunni Arabs. This means that U.S. involvement will reinforce the anti-American ideology that drives al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other violent Salafi groups.
Finally, defeating the Islamic State without addressing the region's underlying economic, political, cultural and social pathologies will mean that some new radical threat will emerge to replace the Islamic State. Destroying an organization is not the same as altering its raison d'etre. A campaign against the Islamic State will be one of many, the beginning of a costly, bloody strategic cycle.
Ultimately, then, the strategic costs of defeating the Islamic State will be high. Even though it would make the U.S. and its allies safer, the benefits may or may not justify the price. Consideration of both benefits and costs should shape the debate over the appropriate U.S. response. This time Americans must not simply assume that success will be relatively cheap and quick, but instead enter the fray with eyes wide open.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.