The Orlando terrorism attack lays bare President Barack Obama’s illusory mantra of “no ground troops.” His multi-year strategy to contain the threat of Islamic terror via drone strikes, air bombings and the training of local forces abroad has failed to protect the homeland. ISIL and other terror groups continue to expand their geographic reach and show an inexorable proclivity to strike soft civilian targets with devastating mass casualties anywhere in the world, including in the United States. As long as the so-called caliphate exists we are unprotected. It is time for the President to change course and mobilize a U.S.-led NATO assault to put an end to the Islamic State.
Our Transatlantic allies in Europe are ready to join forces. Beyond the rising body count from mass attacks in Brussels and Paris, the sudden flux of mostly Muslim refugee from the Middle East is having a pernicious political impact, spurring the rise of anti-liberal political movements and undermining European stability. These movements are also anti-American and favor closer ties with Russia, facilitating Vladimir Putin’s strategic aim of weakening the NATO alliance. A NATO-led action to intervene in Syria to destroy the Islamic State would restore European public confidence in the relevance of security partnership with the United States.
Let us not forget that after last year’s Paris terrorist attack French public opinion flip flopped on using ground forces to extinguish ISIL with 56 percent in favor. With the Brussels attack earlier this year those numbers are certain to go up. But as far back as 2013, when President Obama famously drew and withdrew his “red line” should the Syrian regime use chemical weapons against civilians, French President François Hollande was ready to strike. For the West, the cumulative erosion of our liberties from empowering governments to monitor our communications, fears of going to malls or sporting events, and suffering longer and longer security lines at airports begs the question of just how far are we willing to compromise on our way of life to avoid military intervention?
But how many soldiers would it take to invade Syria and destroy ISIL? It is not the “hundreds and thousands” trope the White House peddles to stifle political debate. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey calls for a strike force of 8,000 to seize ISIL’s capital of Raqqa. Brookings scholar Robert Kagan cites 30,000 U.S. soldiers to set up safe zones. Former Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army General Jack Keane says a more modest 10,000 US troops would suffice.
Whatever the number, we have done this before successfully. The 2007 surge in Iraq and in Afghanistan in 2010 overwhelmed the terrorists, quickened the pace of political transition, and minimized the time and costs required to station large numbers of US forces – that is if we do not prematurely withdraw. NATO allies played key roles in the initial combat phase and made critical contributions to follow-on peacekeeping operations. Hence, there already exists within NATO substantial planning, coordination and execution capabilities that are transferable to Syria. Given the direct security threat ISIL represents, Europe, especially the French, will share the combat burden.
The White House will also have to restore the surges’ counterinsurgency and state-building capabilities to deal with “next day” issues, capabilities it prematurely dismantled in the misguided hope that “the tide of war is receding” and the U.S. could now “shift away from large scale ground wars.” In sum, a ground war is both necessary and doable.
Many may want to assert that regional forces can be our boots on the ground. That is nonsense. Is it really wise to enlist mutually antagonistic Turks, Kurds, Arab Sunni and Shia to bring peace to Syria? Do we want Saudis, whose government produces the hate literature used to radicalize young Muslims, to patrol Syrian streets in a peacekeeping role? Arab forces are rife with corruption and routinely commit human rights at home. Would they act any differently in Syria? This toxic regional brew would require as many Western troops to referee as it would to secure and transition Syria.
It is time for President Obama to end his dogmatic adherence to “no ground troops,” exercise his duties as Commander in Chief, lead a NATO ground action into Syria, and destroy this cancer to our way of life. The alternative is to watch more American cities get hit with mass casualty terrorist assaults and Europe politically degrade to Russia’s strategic benefit.
Max Primorac was Senior Adviser for Stabilization and Transition at the US Department of State during surge operations in Iraq. He was also involved in stabilization missions in Afghanistan, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. He is a Member of the annual Transatlantic Think Tank Conference in Cadenabbia, Italy. These are his personal views.