There are two ways to win a military battle: fast and slow. Winning fast depends on strength — it requires going in with all you’ve got to get the job done. Winning slow depends on sustaining or ignoring the public’s patience – it requires the endurance to outlast the will of the enemy.
Authorizing a strategy to win fast (three year limit) without strength (a restriction on ground troops) is almost certain to be a path to failure. Congress should reject the authorization for force to address the threat of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) as proposed by President Barack Obama.
I voted for the authorizations to engage in Afghanistan and Iraq and was the only Republican U.S. Senate candidate in 2006 to run a campaign advertisement on the latter issue. My ad in essence called for the surge before President George W. Bush even suggested it. Given what has transpired in the region since then, I have devoted much time to reflecting on lessons learned.
Five key lessons from our engagement in Iraq suggest the president’s proposal is a recipe for disaster:
You need more force than you anticipate. President Bush was roundly criticized for not having sufficient force to stabilize Iraq. Many cited the fact that war games called for a force far in excess of the one that ultimately deployed for the invasion. The fact that ISIS reclaimed large segments of Iraq after President Obama hurried our withdrawal suggests that he also underestimated the force required to preserve stability.
Winning the peace is harder than defeating your opponent. Clearly we found this out in Iraq. Yet the debate about how we win the peace if we do succeed in defeating ISIS has not even begun. We haven’t even started to ask questions about the territory now controlled by ISIS, let alone answer more complex ethnic and tribal quandaries that are bound to arise. Do we hand ground back to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Or is Obama banking on Iran ushering Assad out after we reach an agreement on their nuclear program? If Assad is not replaced, would we be on the hook for building an entirely new nation in the portion of Syria from which we hope to displace the Islamic State?
We have not heard word one on any of these questions from the president.
Training troops: culture takes time to change. I witnessed the training of Iraqi troops first hand in Iraq twice. We applied significant resources. We implemented structures and methods to get Sunni, Shia, and Kurd fighters to be prepared to take orders from each other. While they showed signs of promise fighting alongside American troops, the evolution of Iraq after our departure gives one pause for relying on the training of troops as a quick solution.
Relying on sectarian militias only fuels further sectarian strife. While the United States has established a long track record of working effectively with Kurdish militias, we have found that giving more legitimacy to the Badr Organization’s Shia militias creates future headaches. As the New York Times recently reported, this “group stands among the most divisive in Iraq, accused of atrocities against Sunnis and known for its close ties to Iran.” Our reliance on them is inconsistent with our goal for a more inclusive government in Iraq or one that is not aligned with Iran.
We need more, not fewer, allies. While candidate Obama relished in scoffing at the 40 nations President Bush assembled in the “coalition of the willing” as “unilateral,” the alliance he has assembled for action against ISIS pales in comparison. I have visited Jordan and met King Abdullah on multiple occasions. Jordan is a valued ally, but cannot on its own defeat ISIS.
The most vital ally in this fight is neighboring Turkey. Two of the above factors complicate gaining the support of Turkish troops: our reliance on Kurdish Syrian troops that are part of a group we both still classify as terrorists and the prospect of a failed state on their border if the fate of Assad is not addressed. Obama’s repeated assertion that Assad must go coupled with his refusal to embrace regime change is particularly irksome to them.
A further lesson, not from Iraq, but from President Obama was put forth recently by retired Gen. James Mattis, recently the head of U.S. Central Command, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when he advised, “Notifying the enemy in advance of our withdrawal dates” and declaring “certain capabilities” off the table is no way to operate.
My mother always advised, “Any job worth doing is worth doing well.” Keeping this heinous blight upon the planet from spreading is a job worth doing in my mind.
As my fellow GW professor Henry Nau advises in his new book Conservative Internationalism, we would be best advised to seek to ratchet the government of Syria in the direction of being more inclusive and participative, rather than relying on a vibrant democracy to immediately emerge. Count that as yet another lesson from Iraq.
This Congress should only authorize President’s Obama actions against ISIS if they feel comfortable that we have a strategy to win and the resources to get the job done. While many members no doubt hope for the prospect of winning fast, they must also have the resolve to win slow if necessary. Only then would this job worth doing have a shot at being done well.