It’s obvious by now that something seriously needs to be done about the so-called Islamic State. That’s been recognized by the US government, with the president’s stated aim now being to “degrade and defeat” ISIS. Defense secretary Hagel and JCS chief Gen. Martin Dempsey have both described us as being “at war” with the terrorist organization, and it’s hard to argue against that. The jihadists seem determined to murder any US – or other western – citizen they get their hands on and their caliphate rhetoric is a clear threat to our way of life. Right now their reach is confined to the Middle East, but we know only too well what determined fanatics can do if they decide to stretch their arms out. We also know that a lot of former al Qaeda members have defected to the newer group, and AQ’s ability to carry out global attacks is a matter of record. ISIS is a real danger and one we should close down before it grows.
So what does that mean for the US military? The USAF is already in action, bombing ISIS defensive positions in support of Iraqi and Kurdish allies. Strikes have been carried out and the scope of targeting is being widened – on September 22, the US along with five Arab nations began airstrikes against ISIS and a small AQ network. The problem is what’s been done so far isn’t enough… and everyone knows it.
The most likely step for the administration to take is a step change in the tempo of strikes. With an average of four a day being carried out right now, it’s nothing but pinpricks to a group controlling as much ground as ISIS currently does. To seriously degrade their fighting power, this needs to increase by at least a factor of ten, and probably more. And we might need to face the issue of ground troops.
The administration has been adamant about not committing US ground forces back into Iraq so soon after our drawdown there, but not only is this not a sustainable position – it’s not really an accurate one. There are already around 1,600 troops in Iraq acting as advisors to anti-ISIS forces, and it could make a big difference if those troops took a more active role in the actual fighting. We’re not talking about committing US maneuver units – our regional allies can provide those – but advisors could accompany local troops during actual operations, similar to the successful Operational Mentoring and Liaison teams in Afghanistan. US troops could also enhance the effectiveness of air strikes by calling them in, speeding up the decision cycle, and allowing more flexible and responsive targeting.
Finally there’s the question of special forces. With multiple western hostages threatened with murder by their ISIS captors, a raid to rescue them is a priority the moment intelligence makes it possible. US and UK special forces are already in the region and standing by to go in as soon as they’re needed. These units can also be committed to take out high value enemy targets without risking dragging the USA into the main fighting.
What’s certain is that, given the scale of threat ISIS presents to the Middle East and the world in general, a violent response to their atrocities needs to happen – and soon.