Tracking the Inevitable, Critical Second Step Toward War with the Islamic State
It was mid-June when the Islamic State (IS) called for Muslims around the world to swear allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And by mid-November, upwards of 65 distinct jihadist groups had done just that. Whether through shared vision or mutually beneficial partnership, elements in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia expressed their loyalties to the terrorist group that had already strong-armed vast expanses of land away from Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State had not only managed to formally expand into new countries. It had spread onto neighboring continent, Africa.
Meanwhile, several days after Chairman of the Joints Chief General Martin Dempsey, United States Army, made a November visit to Iraq to assess life among the Islamic State, President Obama ordered that the mission in Afghanistan be extended into 2015, along with the approximately 9,800 troops expected home sooner rather than later. The mission, to join NATO-led operation Resolute Support aimed at improving the function of Afghan forces as it continues to struggle against the Taliban.
Roughly 2,800 U.S. military advisors exist in Iraq. Fifteen hundred soldiers made the trip, also in November, to expand the role of personnel already in place following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their mission, to extend the rebuilding of the Iraqi Army since its collapse following the US drawdown.
The Islamic State took no one by surprise more than the Iraqis. It consumed everything in its path toward establishing a caliphate, or Islamic state, and did so with absolute conviction, without apology, and total mercilessness. In facing IS forces, Iraqi soldiers abandoned American munitions — light arms, heavy weapons, Humvees, tanks — essentially handing them to the enemy. During the summer, the Islamic State even possessed as many as three antiquated Soviet jet fighters.
The underlying problem of corruption throughout Iraqi ranks further complicates an already tenuous situation, and is the very reason Iraq's new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently removed 36 commanders from power.
At the forefront of media coverage remains Kobani, Syria, along the Turkish border. A fixed photo-op, Kobani provides a measurable body count and return on investment for the US-led airstrikes that have been taking place since October. Syrian Kurds, reinforced by Turkish Kurds and Peshmerga (Kurdistan soldiers), are left to manage ground operations while an international alliance attacks IS forces in Kobani and elsewhere from above.
Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Albania, Croatia, New Zealand, Romania, South Korea and the United States, among others, provide support through air power, munitions, intelligence or humanitarian aid as needed. Regionally, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Georgia, Turkey, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates offer like resources as well as access to military installations.
By limiting US involvement to air support, very little opposition occurred at the Congressional level, war-weary civilians barely raised an eyebrow, and the White House received a relatively warm response from the international community, as evidenced by the size of the alliance.
Despite the response of world governments, the Islamic State grows, both in numbers and geography. To date, over 1,000 airstrikes intended to slow the expansion of the Islamic State have been the equivalent of trying to collect an oil spill in a Dixie Cup. The spread is three-dimensional, and the source of the flow has yet to be corked.
Where CIA intelligence puts IS numbers at 31,500 soldiers, local estimates run as high as 200,000. Regionally, IS forces have swelled by absorbing both civilians and trained military personnel, whether by force or or through defection. Internationally, sympathizers are travelling to join the fight to establish the Caliphate, or are plotting to carry out terrorist acts on behalf of the Islamic State in their native homelands. As their numbers grow, so have proclamations of allegiance coming from terrorist organizations with footholds, in-roads and geographic control far away from the fight in Kobani.
The Islamic State has good communications and thoughtful propaganda. It has a plan, infrastructure and trap doors into expanding markets when established ones collapse. IS' tactical vision, resource reconnaissance savvy, and a seemingly endless supply of recruiting sources and methods translate into the most advanced terrorist organization that the modern world has seen.
Yet, the alliance insists that the answer rests with those who live within the stretching shadow of the Islamic State. Or, does it? Where recent movements of US troops within or into the region have specific objectives, the fact remains that they are being deployed as this new threat continues to expand. To counter IS gains, the use of alliance ground forces — in combination with local militaries — will ultimately prove necessary.
The Prime Minister's recent assertion that US troops will receive immunity from prosecution while in-country simplifies consideration for future deployments. It is also a complete reversal of his predecessor's stance on hosting US combat troops. The announcement, as well, comes in advance of Congress approving President Obama's request for an additional $5B to fight the Islamic State.
As the region prepares for the rainy season, it's imperative that any additional staging in the war against IS provide strategies for navigating the ever-changing landscape from which the Islamic State promotes its ideology. As it continues to spread, so must the focus of those looking to contain it. Airstrikes and ground forces will not be enough to do the job. The Islamic State is not static real estate with traditional boundaries. It is an end goal, and the means by which IS moves toward that goal have clearly illustrated that nothing is off the table, and that the alliance will need to dig incredibly deep to weather what is proving to to be a long-term, escalating situation.