Obama’s Islamic State Strategy Avoids Failure, but Also Success.
By Steven Metz, April 24, 2015, Column
| Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters regain control of the northern neighborhoods, |
after overnight heavy clashes with Islamic State group militants, Ramadi, Iraq, April 23, 2015.
When U.S. President Barack Obama announced his strategy for countering the so-called Islamic State (IS) last September, it was met with an immediate volley of criticism, most of it asserting that the president’s approach was too timid. Incensed by IS’ horrors, the critics called for large-scale American military action. Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance, demanded that the Obama administration “destroy” IS within 90 days. When told by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that this was impossible, Cruz issued a press release saying the general was wrong.
Now that the 2016 presidential race has kicked off, the jabs at Obama’s strategy have intensified, growing more frequent and pointed. Last week, for instance, Rep. John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the house, said Obama was not “serious about fighting the fight” against IS. Much of this vitriol is fueled by partisanship rather than differences over U.S. national interests, and the task of defeating IS was never going to be easy. However, even when graded by its own objectives, the Obama strategy has had mixed results.
One of the most important of the administration’s goals was diminishing the Islamic State’s barbarity. On this count, the Obama strategy has failed. Despite Pentagon estimates that thousands of IS fighters have been killed by airstrikes or in ground battles, the group continues to murder, rape and enslave, ruling whatever territory it conquers by fear and violence. Relying on airstrikes and support to Iraqi security forces rather than a direct U.S. military presence, the Obama strategy does little to stem this humanitarian tragedy. At best, the strategy earns a “D” grade here.
On a more positive note, American airstrikes and security assistance helped prevent the collapse of the Iraqi government and the seizure of Baghdad by the Islamic State, both of which seemed possible last summer. But since large-scale Iranian help on the ground had more to do with staving off a decisive IS victory than U.S. actions, the Obama strategy earns only a “B” in this category.
The ultimate objective of the Obama strategy was to pave the way for the eventual defeat of the Islamic State by Iraqi security forces. Here it gets a grudging “C.” Seven months in, the Iraqi military depends heavily on American airpower, Iranian advisers and Shiite militias. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, pointed out, it took the participation of thousands of Iranian-trained Shiite militia fighters for the operation that pushed IS out of Tikrit to succeed. By contrast, in Ramadi, where there were few militia fighters to bolster the Iraqi security forces, IS again took the offensive. There are few signs that the Iraqi military will be able to defeat IS on its own for many years, if at all. In the meantime, the combination of Iraqi security forces, Iranian advisers and Shiite militias will keep IS out of Baghdad and southern Iraq. Kurdish militias will push IS back somewhat in the north. But there is no foreseeable path to eradicating IS in Iraq’s Sunni Arab western provinces.
The only silver lining is that the IS franchises and emulators springing up across the Islamic world from Libya to Afghanistan are unlikely to replicate the success of the original movement. Documents captured from one of the founders of the Islamic State demonstrate the vital role that military and intelligence officers from the regime of Saddam Hussein played in making IS effective. As a result of their planning, the group blended the careful preparation, organization and intelligence-collection of a traditional underground revolutionary movement like the Viet Cong with the ideological passion of a religious terrorist group like al-Qaida. IS franchises or emulators may be able to replicate the ideological fervor, but not the organizational effectiveness brought by Saddamist operatives. They will kill, but not conquer and rule.
That leads to the final objective of the Obama strategy: keeping the strategic costs paid by the United States proportionate to the threat. This has been difficult, particularly in America’s hyperpartisan political climate. IS’ depravity and its attempts to inspire attacks in Europe and North America made it tempting to overreact. But so far the Obama administration has been able to resist pressure for a deeper U.S. role in combat operations. The Obama strategy gets points for sustainability. The economic costs of the air campaign and security assistance programs, which the Pentagon estimates at $8.5 million a day, are burdensome but tolerable.
There is, though, one other cost that must be considered when grading the Obama strategy: By limiting the extent of U.S. involvement, the strategy forced the Iraqi government to become deeply indebted to Iran for advice, training and direct military support. From Baghdad’s perspective, Washington helped out, but Tehran saved the day. Whether the Islamic State is defeated outright or simply degraded to a tolerable level, the alliance between Baghdad and Tehran will persist. While this will be a dark mark on the Obama record, there was no way to avoid it short of either allowing the Islamic State to conquer Baghdad or undertaking a massively expensive and counterproductive redeployment to Iraq. Nothing in between would have altered the Iraqi government’s perception. The Obama strategy, then, gets a “B+” for keeping U.S. involvement proportionate to the threat.
Altogether, the Obama strategy earns a “B-.” It avoided the twin disasters at either end of the spectrum, refusing to allow the heat of emotion to draw the U.S. back into Iraq’s ongoing civil war or the Islamic State to conquer Baghdad. But it has done little to blunt the humanitarian disaster fueled by the civil war and shows little promise of decisively defeating the extremists. So while the strategy is not a total failure, neither is it a major success.
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 Friday. 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.