And that’s most worrisome of all — the possibility that our insistence on “no boots on the ground” also offloads present risks onto the future. Relying on airstrikes alone may merely prolong a bloody and inconclusive conflict, or strengthen other actors who are just as brutal as Islamic State fighters, from the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the al-Qaeda-linked rebels of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Insisting that we’ll never commit U.S. troops to this fight plays right into every jihadist narrative, reinforcing America’s image as an arrogant but cowardly nation — happy to drop bombs from a distance but unwilling to risk the lives of our troops. Each time we reinforce that narrative, we give jihadist recruiting another big boost.
For a decade, we’ve relied on drone strikes as a top counterterrorism tool in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but a few thousand dead terrorism suspects later, it’s far from clear that we’ve made ourselves safer. If anything, the global jihadist movement appears to have gained strength. As a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, recently noted: “In 2004, there were 21 total Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 18 countries. Today, there are 41 Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 24 countries.” Ultimately, our efforts to destroy the Islamic State from afar may similarly spark the creation of even more jihadist groups.