Two days ago, after saying he intended to degrade and destroy the group, he turned around and claimed his goal was to diminish it until it’s “a manageable problem.” Now he’s back to dismantling it. John Kerry told reporters this morning that O’s strategy is “becoming more clear by the day.” It is?
I think it’s clear enough what he has in mind, actually, despite the clumsy rhetoric. He’s using Afghanistan as a template. Leaving Afghanistan in Taliban hands after 9/11 was untenable because it would have meant leaving Al Qaeda with a base. You had to smash the Taliban terror-state first to scatter the Al Qaeda roaches, then systematically zap those roaches in their new hiding spots. (Minor footnote: With the Afghan government weak and the U.S. set for some sort of withdrawal, Afghanistan is on its way back to being a Taliban terror-state.) You’ll never kill all of them but you’ll kill a lot, ideally enough to accomplish your core goal: Stopping the group from hitting the U.S. again. That’s what Obama seems to have in mind for ISIS. You smash the jihadi Reich, liquidate its SS, and watch the rest of the roaches scatter. Shiite death squads will take care of most of them eventually — along with many innocent Sunnis too, I’m sure. As long as you make it prohibitively difficult for them to hit the U.S., you’re achieving your main task even if some of the roaches, a la Ayman al-Zawahiri, crawl on. That’s what Obama meant by “manageable,” I think. ISIS will persist, if only as a brand for far-flung jihadis. The severity of the threat hopefully will not.
The question: Can you follow the Afghanistan template with local troops? Iraq skeptic Gen. Anthony Zinni said the other day that two brigades of U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq would push ISIS’s merry band of degenerates back into Syria “in a heartbeat.” You’re not going to get those brigades, though, unless (God forbid) ISIS did pull off an attack inside America. You’re going to have to do this with Kurds, Iraqis, and Iranians. Maybe that’s feasible with U.S. airpower in support, but Israel has impressive airpower too and they have yet to demolish the Hezbollah terror-state in Lebanon. The risk we’re taking here with a group that’s bigger, richer, and more broadly expansionist than Al Qaeda is that the local coalition can push them back before they push on to Baghdad or into Jordan and destabilize another American ally — or before they start playing around with the more exotic prizes they may have captured during their conquest. How lucky do you feel?
If you missed it a few days ago at TNR, this piece on the new “caliphate” is worth reading. In theory, liquidating the leadership of ISIS is less important than liquidating the leadership of Al Qaeda was. ISIS has thousands of fighters and can carry on with a new figurehead if need be whereas AQ’s top people, most notably Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, were the brains behind operations like 9/11. An expert quoted in the TNR piece, though, thinks it’s important to kill the “caliph” and his thug associates ASAP for the simple reason that the more resilient the “caliphate” seems, the more Muslims it’ll attract around the region. You can’t wipe out ISIS’s troops overnight but maybe you can effectively snuff out perceptions that ISIS has created a functioning Islamic state by decapitating its leadership and leaving it in disarray. Obama’s already started on that task.