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Killing ISIS: Five Reasons American 'Boots the ground' will backfire

By Loren Thompson
20 November 2015
Forbes

Despite numerous atrocities committed by the radical jihadist group ISIS, the American public strongly opposes a return of U.S. troops to the area where the group claims to have established an Islamic caliphate. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted during the weekend after attacks in Paris found that 76% of Americans do not want U.S. ground forces sent to fight ISIS, and 65% don’t even want small special operations units to conduct limited missions. Many respondents want to see the current bombing campaign intensified or more aid given to local forces battling the extremists, but there isn’t much enthusiasm for the kind of ground campaign Jeb Bush advocated this week at the Citadel.

Nonetheless, the number of U.S. troops in areas where ISIS is active seems to be inching up. The U.S. ground presence in Iraq, which began with the commitment of a mere 300 advisors in June of 2014, has increased to over 3,500 and a U.S. soldier was killed there in October during a raid to rescue hostages. In Syria, the Obama Administration has moved to establish a permanent presence by U.S. special operators, ostensibly to bolster the logistics of local fighters battling the jihadists. As Barbara Starr and Jeremy Diamond of CNN pointed out in an October 30 report, this isn’t the first time U.S. special operators have been on the ground in Syria, but it is the first time they will be staying.

We have been at this place many, many times before — in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Somalia and a host of other locations. The commitment of ground troops gradually grows until indigenous forces deal the U.S. a heavy blow, and then American resolve crumbles. Washington and the people it was trying to help often end up worse off than before troops were sent, because any withdrawal is rightly interpreted by enemies as a sign of weakness. Listen to what Osama bin Laden said after President Bill Clinton pulled U.S. troops out of Somalia in 1994 following an ugly encounter with backers of a local warlord: when “one American was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left; the extent of your impotence and weakness became very clear.”

U.S. soldiers in Iraq during the military campaign that ended in 2010. The current plan is to keep any troops sent to Iraq or Syria out of combat, but the battlefield is fluid and the enemy decides whether to engage U.S. forces. (Retrieved from Wikipedia)
U.S. soldiers in Iraq during the military campaign that ended in 2010. The current plan is to keep any troops sent to Iraq or Syria out of combat, but the battlefield is fluid and the enemy decides whether to engage U.S. forces. (Retrieved from Wikipedia)

Bin Laden drew the obvious conclusion and launched a series of attacks on American interests, culminating in the 9-11 catastrophe. It seems that even small reverses on the ground can have big consequences. So before U.S. leaders make the same mistake again — committing U.S. ground forces to an ill-defined military campaign in a country of marginal consequence without strong public support — they need to step back and understand all the reasons they might one day come to regret such a move. Here are five arguments why sending more U.S. troops to Iraq or Syria would be a major mis-step.

1. It will give the terrorists easy targets. ISIS operatives are working hard to find American targets they can strike, but there aren’t many suitable sites within reach. Deploying U.S. troops nearby would make their task much easier. In 1983, the Reagan Administration sent troops to join a multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon; on October 23, suicide bombers attacked the sites where U.S. and French forces were quartered near Beirut. Over 300 were killed, including 220 marines. It was the worst one-day death toll the U.S. military had suffered since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The international peacekeeping force was soon withdrawn, handing a major victory to jihadist forces (probably backed by Iran). So sending U.S. ground forces to the area, especially in small and vulnerable contingents, is asking for trouble.

2. It will provide captives for influencing U.S. policy. ISIS has proven adept at manipulating public opinion through the use of social media. Beheadings and immolations of hostages have been especially effective at terrifying target populations, while recruiting new jihadists to the cause. If the U.S. persists in sending troops to isolated locations where they could be ambushed and captured, it is obvious they will be used as pawns to undermine American resolve. Such episodes can severely undermine the credibility of U.S. overseas commitments, and the power of U.S. leaders at home. For instance, the Iranian hostage crisis drove President Jimmy Carter from office and greatly strengthened the prestige of radicals in Tehran. ISIS knows all too well how to use American hostages to advance its interests.

3. It will take the pressure off local forces to perform. The biggest problem Washington faces in dealing with ISIS is that local militaries in the region lack the skill and discipline to operate effectively against the hardened veterans of war in Anbar and Chechnya that often lead jihadist assaults. Nonetheless, Kurdish fighters and Shiite militias have recently made significant advances against ISIS forces, and even the Iraqi military is showing some signs of going on the offensive. If American forces take a leading role in the battle against ISIS, that will take the pressure off indigenous groups to fight tenaciously in defense of their homelands. Sending U.S. troops might get the job done quicker, but what Washington really needs is to build up local military forces so they can keep the peace after ISIS is gone.
4.It will lead to taking sides in civil wars. ISIS has managed to hold territory in Syria and Iraq because they are failed states, wracked by civil war. Dictators in both countries have periodically resorted to brutal repression of their populations, and it is only the waning of their power that allowed ISIS to take root. But with so many ethnic and religious factions now pursuing wildly divergent goals, it is inevitable that any U.S. ground presence will run afoul of local rivalries. For instance, the Kurdish fighters who have made the greatest inroads against ISIS represent a community that has long sought a national homeland — one which would need to be carved out of other states in the region. Dropping U.S. troops into this setting will make them unwitting participants in local agendas that have nothing to do with defeating ISIS.

5. It will become a force of occupation. It’s no coincidence that ISIS became a major player in the region after U.S. forces departed from Iraq. The U.S. military had largely wiped out an earlier incarnation of the group that originated in Anbar province before withdrawing, but the group was able to rebuild in what is often referred to by outsiders as the “vacuum” that followed America’s presence. President Obama argues convincingly that if U.S. troops lead the fight to defeat ISIS, then some new group of extremists will likely again rise up after the Americans are gone. His solution of building up local governments and militaries so they can control their territories is messy and frustrating, but the alternative is U.S. troops staying forever — which would begin to look like the return of colonialism.

The bottom line is that injecting U.S. ground forces into the fight against ISIS is an invitation to further military fiascos in the Middle East of the sort that Washington has experienced all too frequently in recent years. Before resorting to that very risky strategy, the Obama Administration should try to use its air power more forcefully, expand military aid to indigenous forces motivated to challenge ISIS, and exploit its extraordinary intelligence network to deprive the jihadists of financing. Sending U.S. troops should only be a desperate last resort, undertaken in full recognition that if we again go there, the terrorists likely will come here.