international analysis and commentary

Hesitation and confusion in the anti-ISIS strategy of the US


As the first moments of shock subside after the terrorist attack that struck Paris on November 13th, the attention of politicians and commentators in Europe and the United States turns to the question of what’s next. Pretty much everybody on both sides of the Atlantic agrees that the carnage inflicted by armed “fighters” with links to ISIS on the French capital carries tremendous weight – for the lives lost, the anguish of the survivors, and also at a symbolic level. Its scope is especially remarkable in light of the recent escalation of violence by ISIS abroad, including the recent downing of a Russian charter plane and the suicide bombings in Beirut a few days before the Paris attacks. In France, the consensus appears to be that this was a strategic game-changer and that, as such, it merits a particularly forceful response. President François Hollande immediately intensified French airstrikes on ISIS-controlled Syria. In the US, in the meantime, people can’t even agree on what these events say about ISIS’s strength and goals, let alone what Washington should do about it.

“I think the attacks in Paris, Beirut and against the Russian plane show that ISIS is not contained,” says Steven Bucci, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. “It is in fact expanding its reach.” Or is it? “My personal view is that these recent attacks should be taken as a sign of weakness,” counters Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. “ISIS is upset because we stepped up the campaign against it recently.”

Just before terrorists laid siege to Paris the news had come of the death of “Jihadi John” in a US drone strike. He was the infamous British-born militant seen executing foreign prisoners in a series of grisly videos last summer. Only a couple of days later, hours after a French swat team brought the bloody hostage-taking at the Bataclan theater to an end, another American airstrike, ordered before the events in Paris, reportedly killed ISIS Libya chief Abu Nabil. Additionally, Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Iraq, under American air cover, regained some ground in the last few days.

It looks as though ISIS is simultaneously on the offensive and the defensive. So what’s the US administration to do? The answer depends on which scenario one views as paramount. Speaking on November 16th from Antalya, Turkey, where the G20 summit was taking place, President Barack Obama announced that there would be no radical shift in US policy vis-à-vis ISIS after Paris. “[W]e have a comprehensive strategy using all elements of our power – military, intelligence, economic, development, and the strength of our communities,” the President said. “We have always understood that this would be a long-term campaign. […] The terrible events in Paris were a terrible and sickening setback. Even as we grieve with our French friends, however, we can’t lose sight that there has been progress being made.”

Since the attack, the US has been stepping up airstrikes, it has directly targeted for the first time ISIS oil transports, and it has increased intelligence sharing with its allies, starting with France. “The change is incremental and ongoing, and apparently won’t be tied too much to Paris in the first instance,” says Michael O’Hanlon, Co-Director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, “Unless other leaders manage to change Obama’s mind or unless yet further tragedies further intensify and complicate the situation.”

Those who think that ISIS is simply reacting to being pushed into a corner generally think Obama is doing the right thing, especially considering the constraints that domestic politics impose on him. “First of all, if you put a lot of boots on the ground, it feeds into the ISIS narrative that this is a struggle between the West and Islam,” says Korb. “Secondly, even Americans that are unhappy with Obama’s strategy don’t want to put a lot of boots on the ground.”

But for people who worry that ISIS is growing in reach and ambition, this approach is insufficient. “I think that US policy has not been effective,” says Bucci, who served as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official under the Bush administration. “It might have kept ISIS from gaining more ground in Iraq, but that’s a very limited way of looking at this.” Bucci, like other experts, especially conservative-leaning ones, would like to see a much more significant deployment of American Special Forces in the region in concert with the Iraqi military, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the more trusted opposition groups in Syria. He is also calling for air activity to increase significantly, bringing it more in line with what was done at the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. For him and people who agree with him, these are steps the US must take in order to finally embrace its global leadership, convince recalcitrant countries to join the fight against violent extremism, and defeat ISIS once and for all. According to this view, President Obama has shied away from what is America’s rightful and necessary place in the world, and the world is suffering as a result. To those who fear that Washington might be sucked into yet another Middle East misadventure, Bucci replies: “We should go in, clean these guys out and leave Sunni Arab forces to police the situation until it comes down. I don’t think Western troops should stay there, but it will take the capabilities only they have to destroy ISIS.”

While the debate over the use of force rages on, Secretary of State John Kerry is working with the international community to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria, and to the ISIS problem. But the Washington expert community is divided even as to the worthiness of that effort. “The progress of the peace talks is a critical development – if it works, it will undermine the whole rationale for the ISIS insurgency,” says Stephen Schlesinger, a fellow at The Century Foundation. Others, however, have doubts that this is time well spent by Kerry and his counterparts. “My sense is that bullies, and ISIS is nothing if not bullies, respond much more to strength,” says Robert Deitz, Professor at the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs of George Mason University. Deitz says he is skeptical of what he calls President Obama’s “enormous faith” in the negotiating process. He thinks we should see more “gunboat diplomacy” going forward, not only by France but also the US, “where we don’t actually do a whole lot but we are going to show up.” Schlesinger too sees a problem with diplomacy in this specific case. “Any agreement on Syria will probably mean that the US will no longer insist that ‘Assad has to go’ right away. Instead Obama will agree to a longer transition for the Assad government, allowing the Syrian leader to stay in power for a number of months, perhaps even a year.” The fact that the talks as they stand could turn the tables in favor of Assad, even empower the extremists further, represents such a huge risk in the opinion of O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution that he calls Kerry’s a “misguided peace process” that is “divorced from battlefield realities”. He writes in a recent op-ed for US Today: “By distracting us from the real tasks at hand, the Kerry approach is likely to prolong the war.” 

If there is no agreement on the military and diplomatic fronts, a consensus might emerge, or at least slip through the cracks while nobody is watching, at the level of intelligence. Already many are rethinking the debate on security versus privacy and even the need for the sweeping electronic espionage program of the National Security Agency, which came under fire in 2013 as a result of the leaks to the media by then-contractor Edward Snowden. “I think Paris might move people toward the acceptance of some, not a lot, but some intrusion with respect to things like signal intelligence,” says Deitz, who was Senior Councilor to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 until February 2009 and General Counsel of the NSA in the crucial period from September 1998 to September 2006.

What he doesn’t expect Paris will bring instead is some sort of “magic bullet”, some “nifty new technology” that can solve the ISIS problem quickly and painlessly. “It is going to be a long slog,” he says, “which will take steadiness”. On this, we can probably all agree.