“Boots on the ground” a good decision in fight against ISIS
On Monday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that America will be sending 217 ground troops to battle ISIS in Iraq. The ground troops will be joining the special operations forces that arrived in October.
Evaluating whether or not this is a good idea is a very complicated process, but there are three basic things that need to be true for a ground invasion to be a good idea. There needs to be some sort of value, strategic or otherwise, that justifies the loss of life in pursuit of a goal; It must be likely that the ground troops will make victory substantially easier; and there must be a viable exit strategy. In this particular case, all these requirements are met. While there are a thousand moving parts to a complete evaluation of the decision to send ground troops to Iraq, this very basic checklist (which has been ignored before) would lead you to approve the decision by Carter.
The first and most obvious litmus test of whether or not to send ground troops is whether or not it is worth the loss of life. Since this is a value judgment, it is the part of warfare subject to public political discourse and the one that is hardest to evaluate.
Given recent history, this litmus test is also commonly used to reject any military action. People felt that the Iraq War from 2003-2007 was completely without purpose. While this isn’t an accurate representation, the Iraq War turned out to be a colossal strategic blunder in hindsight.
Former president George W. Bush was under the impression that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) from both an infamous National Intelligence Estimate and statements from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Bush himself was not privy to just how porous the case made in that intelligence briefing was. The rest is history. The United States military toppled the Iraqi government, removing a primary enemy from the radars of both Al Qaida in Iraq (now ISIS) and Iran and achieving virtually nothing. Presently, eastern Iraq is doing okay, but western Iraq is controlled by ISIS, hardly a preferable alternative to Hussein. No evidence of WMDs was found.
This experience leads many people to be strongly averse to a renewed ground campaign in Iraq. They see no positive incentive for military engagement or doubt the veracity of any justification given. However, in this case, there are clear and impactful reasons for the United States to be fighting to destroy ISIS.
The first is a moral argument. People across the Middle East are dying due to the brutality of ISIS. There is even an argument that strategic blunders by the United States led to the rise of ISIS, which makes us responsible. From there, it seems sufficient that ISIS must be destroyed or they will continue to kill people in staggering numbers.
Second, ISIS is having noticeably negative effects on the American economy. The devastating effect on the economy of the Levant from the death of people who could otherwise be positive contributors and the effects of globalization mean that this is a significant problem for America as well. Furthermore, ISIS’s illegal oil sales are helping to drive down the cost of oil which is damaging the American economy in ways ranging from the stock market to Medicare.
Third, a stable Iraq is an important goal, and ISIS makes it impossible for Iraq to be stable since the group’s primary goal is to occupy Iraqi land. A stable Iraq could help counterbalance Iran’s military ambition, as it did before the Iraq War. This, in addition to Obama’s Iran Deal, could help stabilize the Middle East in the long run by laying the groundwork for peaceful diplomatic negotiations when the region’s powers are less trigger-happy.
The second benchmark in pursuing a conflict is whether or not the conflict can be won. It seems easy to just say America has the most powerful military in the world and will win everything, but that is a silly mistake to make. History is littered with overconfident powers taking ill-advised steps into conflicts they never had a chance at winning. American soldiers had no knowledge of Vietnamese jungles and could not get into pitched battles with the Viet Cong, making the Americans susceptible to ambushes and making strategic gains incredibly hard. America also has trouble in rural, mountainous regions like Afghanistan because it is hard to train soldiers for that terrain in America. This is why the war in Afghanistan yielded nothing for so long; the American military was ill-equipped for the conflict and had no reasonable expectation of victory.
This conflict is different. ISIS is present mostly in or near cities, which provides several avenues for ground troops to help the U.S. achieve victory.
The first way U.S. ground troops have an advantage is that since cities are concentrated, they are easier to police and patrol, making it easier for forces to fight there.
The second is that America has had the world’s best military night vision for a very long time. This may seem like a silly advantage for the world’s most well-funded fighting force, but seeing in the dark means there are fewer temporal boundaries to Americans fighting. Cities are busy during the day, allowing for tactical operations to happen in secret, while battles can occur at night. When they happen, American soldiers will have a significant edge in battle.
The third is that ISIS is largely made up of foreign fighters, making it difficult for the group to fight in rural areas they are less familiar with. Fighting against ISIS in the Middle East gives the Americans quite a few local allies. This means they can form a coalition similar to the Chindits, a coalition of Burmese, Nepalese, and British troops that fought in Burma during World War II. Japanese soldiers, who were largely confined to cities and the pathways between them, could not protect their supply lines as they moved from city to city when attacked by the coalition. They were eventually forced to abandon Burma entirely despite their initial campaign being one of the most successful invasions by any power during World War II. ISIS is confined in the same way the Japanese soldiers were and they are much worse in terms of training and equipment. Adding American equipment and the ability to call in air strikes to skirmishes between cities could choke off ISIS’s ability to get goods to its military bases, quickly cutting off any ability to fight.
The fourth is that airstrikes become much more effective when there are military personnel on the ground. Soldiers on the ground can learn local customs and more easily tell civilian gatherings from ISIS meetings. When airstrikes hit things like parties and weddings, it rightfully makes people angry towards the West and more willing to join ISIS or other similar groups. Having someone who knows the cultural differences call in the attack is a much more effective way to be attacking from the air.
Finally, before embarking on a ground invasion there must be a way to exit the war so that Americans are not paying for this for decades like we do with conflicts such as the Korean War or the Afghan War. It seems the Obama administration thought of this problem months in advance. The special operations forces have been training local police groups, which shows in Iraq’s ability to hold Tikrit and Ramadi, two cities that were once held by ISIS, largely on their own. These cities now experience relative peace due to the Iraqi government’s ability to keep them secure. If the 217 soldiers are gearing up to take a larger ISIS-held city such as Mosul, the largest city by population in western Iraq before the conflict, the training operations by special forces could make it so that Iraqi forces could hold Mosul, and America could move to a different objective instead of holding the city forever. This would allow America to systematically shrink ISIS territory until local forces could finish it off without having to act as a colonial power, giving America the ability to exit in the short term instead of the very long term.
Even with all of the death and destruction ISIS causes, it is important to be careful in our response. By sending a small team, the Department of Defense has made it clear that these soldiers have a specific objective and the groundwork is laid for this to be a successful intervention. There are plenty of other factors such as strategy and the situation on the ground that can be impossible to know without the right security clearances, but it seems the Obama administration is not playing tiddlywinks with ISIS as the Republicans might have you believe. Instead, Obama has very deliberately made his moves and has put the U.S. in a position to defeat ISIS with minimal long term damage.