The Necessary Metrics to Battle Islamic State Group: Something’s Got To Give

March 20, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

As small scale terror attacks continue to mount, and they will continue, the overall fear of the Islamic State (IS) group’s concept ticks up in kind.  Americans fear the militant group’s activity is increasing globally, which includes the overall radical ideology adopted by these types of organizations.  As many wrote following the Charlie Hebdo attack, al-Qaeda and the IS group will continue to compete for supremacy – al-Qaeda fighting for its relevancy and the IS group for territory and influence it needs for legitimacy.

Al-Qaeda has always been an organization that hides in the shadows.  According to the first set of released bin Laden documents seized at his Abbottabad compound, when al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate wanted to declare an Islamic emirate the idea was put down by bin Laden for fear the affiliate was not ready and would adversely affect the al-Qaeda brand and the idea of the “caliphate.” Believing that the State was a far off concept, bin Laden chose to focus on the far enemy – the U.S. Conversely, the IS group declared the caliphate and has coalesced an effective army that will take years to roll back – something al-Qaeda had not achieved.  Politicians have stated that there is not a military solution to the IS group malady, though, this point has been clarified by experts in that in the near term, a military offensive is needed to roll the group back but in the longer term, a political solution is needed to assuage disaffected citizens who the IS group preys on.

Ground troops are needed to take on the IS group and defeat it  – air power alone won’t do it.  But whose ground troops?  President Obama has vowed the U.S. will not introduce troops in a combat role and Arab regional partners have been cagey in their commitments.  Recent polling indicates Americans are coming around to the concept of introducing American ground troops to fight the IS group as more and more Americans consider them a direct threat.  Combating radical ideology and propaganda is typically thought of in the diplomatic/political sphere.  But how could the short-term military aspect affect it?

David E. Johnson, senior researcher at the RAND Corporation penned in a recent persuasive essay, that U.S. ground forces are essential in Iraq because the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have demonstrated they are still not capable of effectively fighting in urban combat situations.  First, as exemplified in the retreat of thousands of ISF in reaction to the invasion of just hundreds of IS group militants, the ISF continues to maintain significant structural fissures.  Johnson wrote that during the U.S. war in Iraq, “The ISF could only operate effectively with significant U.S. assistance against anything other than moderate-scale internal threats.”

The ISF is currently accompanied by a significantly large force of Shia militia groups with heavy ties to Iran.  “Trying to take Sunni cities with combinations of Shi’a militias, Peshmerga, and ISF forces would also present a challenge.  None of these forces would be trusted by the Sunni populations, which might therefore continue to support [IS group],” wrote Johnson.  Not only are the U.S. forces the most capable forces in the world and most adept at combating an organization such as the IS group in urban environments, Johnson contends they would also be the least likely to have sectarian agendas in the eyes of local Iraqis as reports indicate Iraqi soldiers could be guilty of war crimes.

A failure of ISF forces in Mosul to push back the IS group, an offensive that has been built up for some time now, would give the IS group a big propaganda push and “unhinge U.S. policy in the region,” according to Johnson.  U.S. troops are the only way, in Johnson’s eyes, to prevent what would amount to a catastrophic failure.

On the other hand, legislators such as Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) believe that the U.S. can never win this fight if they have to do the heavy lifting militarily.  “[I]f we have to put ground troops in, it’s because the region itself is not fighting,” Senator Kaine stated at an event last year.  Kaine followed up by asserting that no amount of U.S. troops will win this battle for the region.  Some commentators have alluded to the fact that a U.S. ground assault would serve as a propaganda tool for the IS group in that they could frame it as another example of infidels invading.  A U.S. ground assault could demonstrate that the IS group’s attempts to goad the U.S. into a battle were successful, thus playing into their hands.

Despite Americans’ growing concern for the IS group and their apparent favoring of ground troop introduction, two key issues stand in their way.  First, is military authorization from Congress.  The president’s proposed authorization for use of military force (AUMF), which is currently being debated in Congress, is intentionally ambiguous on this topic as it prevents “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”  There are also two additional proposals introduced in Congress, both in the House.  The first, by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) prohibits ground troops but provides exceptions for training.  Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s (R-IL) AUMF permits the president to use “the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against” the IS group.  The president, under the War Powers Resolution can introduce ground forces for up to 90 days absent a congressional authorization.  Additionally, given the administration’s stance that they already possess the necessary authority to fight the IS group under existing AUMF’s even if Congress fails to pass an IS group-specific statute, it could likely introduce ground forces within these existing parameters.

The second, and more consequential bulwark to a new ground offensive favored by Americans is the current state of budgeting in Congress.  The U.S. has faced serious budget crises in recent years with many members of Congress concerned about the rising debt and deficit.  The U.S. is currently still operating under the sequester  implemented in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which several Senators upbraided during a recent hearing because the measure was supposed to be so disastrous that it would force Congress to hash out political differences and pass a deal.

These austerity measures have strained defense and domestic spending.  Members of Congress have tried to get around it by allocating money to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, described as the war budget or a slush fund that funds operations in conflict zones and is not subject to budget caps.  Some Defense Department officials voiced their concern for this type of appropriations process because they might not be able to access the OCO funds for some time, as opposed to just placing funds in the base budget, which is subjected to caps.

Many on the political left have criticized the newly introduced budgets from the House and Senate Budget Committees this week for their increases in defense spending, which are leveraged with cuts to other social programs and lauded as excluding tax increases.  However, there has also been heavy disagreement between members of the Republican Party concerning the two budgets between fiscal and defense hawks.

The idea of continuing to fund defense programs and commit troops and operations abroad without making significant sacrifices has been bemoaned in the past.  James Fallows writing in The Atlantic described, at length, the trend of transparent support for troops and war generally by the American public given the modern military state enables average Americans to be so isolated from the sacrifices of war.  “This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them—has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm,” wrote Fallows.  “If I were writing such a [modern military] history now,” Fallows continued, “I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.”  In her book, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power,” liberal commentator Rachel Maddow contends that war should be difficult and felt by the entire nation vis-à-vis World War II in which Americans answered the call by either entering the military (through a draft but with a sense of duty) or working in factories to manufacture war equipment.  Not “tak[e] the nation’s armed forces to war without taking the nation as a whole to war,” as President Johnson tried to do in Vietnam.

If the IS group is so bad and America needs to take the reins and involve combat troops, additional sacrifices are going to have to be made – tax increases or cuts in social programs to name a few.  It is clear the war cannot be won with air power alone and the U.S. critically needs to reassess its strategy.  Understandably, the optics of Americans and innocent citizens being beheaded online is powerful, but war should not be a rash decision.  On the other hand, many of the president’s critics point to the worsening situation in the Middle East and elsewhere to his “strategic patience” or more bluntly, his tacit refusal to do anything.  The IS group problem is not going away anytime soon.  And as time passes, the stakes become higher and higher but the answers are not necessarily becoming clearer.