On October 7th, Bloomberg reported that ISIS is spreading to Kobani, a crucial Syrian city bordering Turkey. Kobani’s fall to ISIS would means that the terrorist group has secured over 100 kilometers of land connecting Syria and Turkey. US officials are downplaying the significance of the current battle, but the militaristic importance is clear: ISIS is spreading, and there’s little the United States can do to stop it.
It’s been said time and again that the ongoing crisis with ISIS is similar to the United States’ conflict with al Qaeda. Like last time, we’re faced with a stateless, fundamentalist terrorist group that has grappled the media’s attention because of the needless killings they have committed. Amazingly, while polls suggest that Americans are uncomfortable with boots on the ground in affected countries, they are still overwhelmingly rallying around policies that have been demonstrably ineffective over the past thirteen years. Unfortunately, the media is right. The problems with ISIS directly mirror Iraq and Afghanistan, but policy makers should have learned from our undefined goals, intelligence gaffes, and misuse of the military before confronting another non-state actor.
Ultimately, the United States is treating ISIS like a country instead of an idea taking hold of people across territories around the globe. This disconnect between the US’s strategy and the reality of the battle it’s fighting will lead, and has led, to the ultimate failure of America’s military objectives in the Middle East.
Firstly, the US still does not understand the nature of guerilla warfare. This lesson has been taught time and again, starting with the Tet Offensive but bears repeating. America’s military is well-equipped for state enemies with clear borders and objectives. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would destroy Taliban or al Qaeda leadership, only to make "no tactical gains."
However, territory is not at the heart of ISIS’s mission; influence is. If the wars of the past decade have proved anything, it’s that the United States cannot beat back ideas with bombs.
Secondly, during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American policy makers lacked clear purpose. Chuck Hagel noted in early 2013, "One of the reasons we’re in trouble in Afghanistan is because we went well beyond our mission." President Obama’s mission for destroying ISIS is colored with rhetoric. He calls the group a "major counterterrorism operation" and wants to “degrade and destroy” it. But what does that mean for our troops? Just like when President Bush called for a "War on Terror," there are no clearly defined goals for the ISIS mission. This is an invitation for scope creep.
If having ill-defined goals isn’t detrimental enough, the US is acting on faulty intelligence yet again. Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan turned out to be more of an enemy than an ally. US intelligence agencies failed to collaborate with other allies’ intelligence groups, leading to massive failure in Afghanistan. Unremarkably, the intelligence failures led to "a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals," according to an assessment from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.
The federal government should have learned this lesson last time, but it didn’t. American policymakers were shocked when they learned that ISIS could assemble "between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria" – far more than the original 10,000 predicted before President Obama addressed the nation. As ISIS continues to grow, the President is already blaming intelligence agencies and their leadership for the failures.
Finally, during the wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, policy makers relied heavily on the US’s relative power to justify recommended foreign policy. Hubris, unfortunately, does not win wars or engagements – not in the past and not today. In 2001 and 2003, the US enjoyed the same economic and military hegemony as it does now, but, as this country should have learned in its prior two wars, "staying the course" does not guarantee lasting success. As David Rothkopf writes in Foreign Policy, "The [US] faces financial constraints. There are limits to what its allies are willing to support. There are cultural, historical, geographical, and demographic obstacles that the United States can never surmount."
Those same financial, cultural, and geographical hurdles still exist today. When confronting ISIS, President Obama has limited the military to airstrikes only. While airstrikes are particularly good at destroying a state’s economy, has a weak history of toppling states let alone stateless institutions such as ISIS.
Additionally, our allies suffer from cultural problems. A report from Strategy Page notes that the ground troops at our disposal – largely from allied Middle Eastern states – are "demoralized," particularly if they’re from Iraq. Air support will do little if there are no effective ground troops to finish the job.
It’s clear that the ISIS conflict bares incredibly close resemblances to Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, US policy makers’ approaches to defeating ISIS will be just as ineffective as they have been since 2001, and for the very same reasons. It’s time for the United States to reevaluate its strategy before its caught in another never-ending war.
Rachel Burger is a Young Voices Advocate living in Washington, DC.