What does the likely victory of Iraqi forces retaking Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria tell us about the current U.S. military strategy in Iraq?
The first and most obvious point is that ISIS is not some indomitable foe. Yes, it’s a terrorist “state” of the worst sort, but as a military matter, it’s not ten-feet tall. If the campaign succeeds in capturing back the city—and there is every reason to believe it will—it will have been accomplished largely with a gaggle of Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, at most a brigade of regular Iraqi troops, and a few Sunni tribesmen—not exactly a first-world fighting force. And it will have been done absent the almighty destructive power of the United States Air Force.
The battle over one Iraqi city is hardly conclusive evidence of how one might expect a longer-term effort to go, but it does strongly suggest that President’s Obama’s view that this “is going to be a long-term campaign” is more a sign of what the White House is willing to do than of what could be done. It’s hardly news at this point, but the president’s estimate is less an accurate assessment of a foe than a reflection of the president’s own determination to put off hard decisions. As the three-year timeline proposed in his draft authorization for war against ISIS suggests, it is also a matter he would like to push off to the next occupant of the Oval Office.
With sufficient American “boots on the ground”—say, an Army division’s worth—and an intensified air campaign, ISIS would soon be on its heels, and possibly even routed. If foreign security services want to stop the flow of young recruits into ISIS’s ranks, the best possible strategy would be to turn ISIS into a losing cause. Theology might make martyrdom an attractive alternative in theory, but, in practice, most want to think their ultimate sacrifice helps the winning side.
It’s also worth noting that the conflict has not turned into a deeply embedded insurgency of the kind that took hold of Iraq in the fall of 2003 and required tens of thousands of American soldiers to address with “the surge” in 2007. If anything, in the face of an ISIS regime that tends to brutalize its occupied population even more than the predations of former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian security forces did, most Iraqi Sunnis still seem prepared to accept a Shiite-majority government in Baghdad if they feel moderately secure and if American forces are there to ensure that’s the case.
The reluctance to deploy American forces is typically justified on the grounds of America’s “war weariness.” Yet that weariness now seems to reside largely in the country’s governing circles and not in the general population. In one recent survey of registered voters conducted by Quinnipiac University, nearly two-thirds of respondents thought that U.S. ground troops should be deployed in an effort to address the threat posed by the Islamic State. And, indeed, it is a threat. But we shouldn’t confuse ISIS’s potential effectiveness as a terrorist organization with its ability to hold ground as a conventional military force. Nor should we forget that the best way to reduce that threat is to take away the safety provided by the group’s rule over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The danger is that by not seeing ISIS for what it is, Washington is inviting a dynamic that can only complicate options in the future. Slow-rolling the campaign against ISIS will inevitably give Iran ever more say in Iraq as it provides the support and leadership Baghdad needs to reclaim Iraqi cities and territory. This can only increase the difficulty of peeling back whatever tacit support Iraqi Sunnis are giving ISIS now as they see a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite forces dominate the military campaign against the Islamic State.
Again, none of this is necessary. As the fight over Tikrit shows, a serious American-led campaign to oust ISIS from Iraq is well within our and the Iraqi military’s capabilities. Success in Iraq doesn’t have to wait until next year, or the year after. It’s within our grasp today if only the president were willing to seize the opportunity.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.