The White House announced that this coming Wednesday, President Barack Obama will address the nation and discuss the threat that ISIS poses to the United States and her allies abroad; additionally, he will outline America’s overarching strategy for “degrading and ultimately destroying” this terrorist organization, which conquered a broad swath of territory across Iraq and Syria and savagely beheaded two American journalists. Despite Obama’s overdue, tough-sounding rhetoric, a deeply discomforting truth lies under the surface: the Islamic State is here, and it’s here to stay.
If we look at the historical examples in recent years of countries trying to destroy terrorist organizations, it becomes immediately apparent that containing and disrupting terrorist organizations, as opposed to ultimately “destroying” them, is the only goal that can be realistically achieved.
For example, Israel has repeatedly launched ground incursions into both Lebanon and Gaza to combat the terrorist groups known as Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Despite large-scale military engagements, in which Israel pummeled these territories by utilizing boots on the ground in addition to strikes from the air and bombardments from the sea, both Hezbollah and Hamas remain a bane of Israel’s existence. After decades of going toe-to-toe military with these two terrorist organizations, both Hezbollah and Hamas continue to pose a severe threat to Israel’s national security, as the latest bout between Israel and Hamas proved last summer.
Following the catastrophic events of 9/11, America responded with a massive ground and air campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although our extensive counterterrorism operations in the Levant and in the neighboring countries of Yemen and Pakistan severely degraded the capabilities of these organizations, they are by no means destroyed. Indeed, al-Qaeda continues to proliferate in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa.
In order to actually destroy the Islamic State, the United States would have to eliminate the tens of thousands of fighters it has acquired during its marauding campaign across the Middle East. Our forces, or any others that we could cobble together from regional allies, would have to neutralize ISIS’ headquarters in Syria, a much-needed step that Obama has adamantly dismissed. The Islamic State’s access to massive amounts of oil revenue, critical infrastructure and the general difficulty in combatting an ideology will prevent the United States from eradicating this barbaric terrorist organization.
Additionally, statements made by high-ranking officials such as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey demonstrate that Obama’s use of the word “destroy” is merely a tool to save Obama’s free-falling political legitimacy as opposed to a practical strategy.
In response to a question on Aug. 21 from reporters about how the capabilities of ISIS compare to those of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel characterized the Islamic State as a threat even worse than Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, circa 2001. The group “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” Hagel said, adding that, “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
If the Obama administration truly plans “destroy” the Islamic State, then it must dramatically increase the airstrike operations in Iraq while also expanding the theatre of war to include ISIS’ headquarters in Syria. The measure of destroying an enemy organization is whether its military capabilities are entirely eliminated, Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War said.
“If you use the word ‘destroy,’ you’re talking about a comprehensive military and political victory,” Harmer continued. “If the mission is to destroy [the Islamic State], what we’re doing now is wholly inadequate.”
If our decade-long, ground campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda failed to completely destroy these terrorist organizations, then this administration’s pin-prick airstrikes against the Islamic State, and any other limited counterterrorism operations that we decide to engage in, will have even less success. Thus, we cannot take this administration seriously when it says it will “destroy” the Islamic State, even if it manages to develop a coalition of armed forces with regional allies.