With the recent terror attacks in Orlando and Istanbul, the question of how to best combat ISIS has yet again come to the fore. Pundits, journalists, and generals all have suggestions and recommendations, and many prominent members of the governing class believe that we need to get tougher on ISIS. This view is understandable, but it is utterly wrong. Sadly, there is not much more that we can do to prevent ISIS style attacks; containment is our best strategy.
It is frustrating to realize that our options are so limited. We have an instinctive desire to want to do something, no matter how insignificant, to combat the heinous actions of a group like ISIS. It’s only natural to want to respond to an attack by hitting back. Lashing out is not a strategy, however, and it is abundantly clear that we as a nation do not have the energy or public support to wage another large-scale war in the Middle East. If our previous adventures in Southwest Asia and North Africa (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya) have taught us anything, it is that defeating entrenched terrorist networks requires enormous amounts of resources and manpower. It is not something that can occur over a few weeks or months. Moreover, one must recognize the complexity of counterinsurgency warfare: The U.S. can’t just succeed in the initial invasion, it also must succeed in rebuilding devastated cities, providing stability and security, and working to heal deep rifts between sectarian groups. David Petraeus, the mastermind of America’s COIN (counterinsurgency) strategy, determined that for every 1000 civilians, occupying powers need to deploy 20 troops in order to suppress insurgent networks and provide sufficient security to allow for state building. That means that a full-scale fight against ISIS would require anywhere from 100,000-150,000 U.S. ground troops deployed to Syria and Western Iraq. This level of deployment is not even remotely politically feasible, and it would further undermine U.S. military readiness, leaving America vulnerable to Chinese and Russian machinations in other parts of the globe.
Of course, some commentators argue that a magical coalition of Arab and Kurdish forces will emerge to fight ISIS and restore peace and stability in the Middle East. This, unfortunately, is pure fiction. There is no pan-Arab coalition willing to fight ISIS and work to maintain the U.S.-led liberal order. There are certainly armed groups willing to resist the Islamic State, but these groups have widely divergent interests – the Shia fight for influence in a majority Sunni world, the Kurds seek to create an independent Kurdistan, and the Sunnis fight among themselves. None of them are willing to give their lives for purely selfless humanitarian reasons, nor should we expect them to. In other words, “The underlying problem here is interest misalignment. War is a fundamentally political undertaking, and political interest lies at the heart of effective performance. But U.S. interests and local allies’ rarely align in these kinds of wars.” Moreover, comparisons to the Sunni Awakening of 2007 are overblown because the similarities between the ISIS conflict now and the Iraqi COIN effort of 2006-2008 are minuscule. In 2007, there was a large American military presence capable of providing security for pro-U.S. Sunni forces. This stability and support was ultimately what catalyzed Sunni groups to turn against radicals in their sect and support the American agenda. It would be possible to recreate these conditions if the American public were willing to deploy 100,000 ground troops, but then that would defeat the whole purpose of relying on Arab and Kurdish forces in the first place.
That leaves us with containment, a strategy which lacks glamor but has a decent track record of success. ISIS cannot last forever: It is alienating supporters, generating significant resistance from regional actors, exhausting the oil supplies needed to finance its operations, and taxing its populace into ruin. Much like the Soviet Red Army, ISIS is big (relative to other terrorist groups) and scary, but it is ultimately unsustainable. By relying on overwhelming air power and targeted SOCOM operations, the U.S. can help to expedite the collapse of ISIS by eliminating key leadership and eroding economic and military infrastructure. By accepting refugees and helping to fund aid camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the U.S. can further stem the tide of extremists by shoring up regional governments and preventing them from becoming overwhelmed by displaced peoples. This set of policies is very obviously not ideal: We will suffer from fairly frequent terrorist attacks and tens of thousands of people will suffer under ISIS. Nevertheless, it is the best strategy we have.