The best way to start winning a war is to stop losing. That axiom certainly applies to what’s going on in Iraq. But, that said, there is no place for American brigades in this battle.
Yes, Americans have a huge stake in preventing al-Qaida’s cousin from setting up a brutal caliphate in Iraq. The Middle East is a crossroads of the world. If unchecked, the malevolent influence of the Islamic State could spiral into a sectarian conflict engulfing the entire region.
By some estimates, there are now more than 10,000 foreign fighters in Iraq, including more than 3,000 from the U.S. and other Western nations. These fighters may, in future, be reassigned to return home and wage terrorist campaigns. No matter how you slice it, the longer a terrorist state stands in Iraq, the bigger the problem it poses to the world and to us.
America has every reason to act. The question is: How? How best to help restore peace, stability, and the prospect of a better future to the people of Iraq? The answer to that question does not require massive American ground forces on Iraqi soil.
That’s not because Americans are “sick and tired of war.” Americans don’t like wars – and never have. Yet we fight when we have to. Americans are resilient and practical people. If there is a war to be won and our leaders lay out sensible reasons to fight and a practical, suitable and feasible way to win, Americans will march to the sound of the trumpets.
But not every crisis needs to be handled by sending in the Marines. In this case, the U.S. has practical options that fit well with our vital national interests and can help relieve the growing humanitarian crisis in Iraq.
Washington should focus on marginalizing the destructive influence of Iran, choking off the pipeline that feeds foreign fighters to the Islamic State and setting the conditions that will allow the Iraqis to take back their country.
The Iranian regime is already overstretched. With a nuclear “deal” nowhere in sight, the U.S. has every reason to reinvigorate the sanctions regime against Tehran. This will force them to end their expensive forays into Iraq.
To halt the flow of foreign fighters, the U.S. should focus on disrupting pipeline operations in Turkey and other “countries of transit” where fighters stage to move in and out of the Syria-Iraq theatre.
The rest of the solution lies in helping native assets on the ground do their jobs better. Kurdish security forces and volunteers are more than willing and capable of defending themselves.
What they need is rapid, effective support from the U.S. and other friends and allies. In the south, the Iraq military is still a force to be reckoned with.
What’s needed in both areas are air support, skilled advisors, intelligence gathering, ammo and other supplies.
The U.S. can help with all of that. And it should also keep working diplomatically to help Tehran’s sectarian, malfunctioning government get its act together.
The U.S. also needs to help nearby Jordan, which has borne the brunt of housing more than 600,000 registered refugees from Syria. Strained by that immense burden, Amman now finds itself in the crosshairs of the Islamic State. Driving those fighters from the field requires American support, but not an American invasion.
Once the dual dangers of the Islamic State and Iran are rolled back, there might well be a role for an international force in Iraq to help stabilize things while the nation rebuilds.
This is a role that U.S. forces would have played, had they not been precipitously withdrawn in 2011. The scope and composition of that international force is something a farsighted leader might want to start thinking about. But for now, Washington must focus primarily on how to stop losing.