Though recent media saturation suggest that the Islamic State (IS) emerged almost overnight last summer, this band of Sunni militant fighters has existed in one form or another since 1999. As al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), these militants fought against American and coalition forces in Iraq during the past decade.
With a now estimated 30,000 fighters, IS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), presents a tangible threat to not only their region but the greater world, too. Their longevity provides them with the experience to exact considerable havoc; however, both the greater resources available and the experience the U.S. and its allies have in working against these militants provides an advantage over IS. The question that remains is whether the U.S. and its allies have the will to fight this battle.
The threats that IS presents to both the world and the U.S.:
- IS condones and conducts brutal tactics such as beheadings and mass executions to achieve its mission of securing its caliphate.
- Kurdish activists posted their reportedly photographic evidence that ISIS now possesses chemical weapons obtained from Iraq this past summer.
- IS practices enslavement of those from polytheistic religions, such as the Yadizis in Iraq. When they overrun their villages, IS divides the women and children among their fighters in a manner akin to spoils of war.
- For those they encounter of monotheistic religions, such as Christianity or non-Sunni Muslims, IS offers either a religious tax (“jizya”) or an opportunity to convert.
- Perhaps the greatest threat is when the efforts of IS to radicalize converts in the west change the day-to-day behaviors of those in whom their call for terrorist attacks inspire fear. Al Qaeda’s brutal actions did not change our behavior; doing so merely serves as propaganda victories for the militants, providing them with fuel for their growth.
So what does this mean for the US and its military?
The administration and military appear at odds over the role of the U.S. in combatting ISIS. Just last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey remarked that nothing has been overruled in the role of the U.S. in combatting IS, including the use of ground combat forces. His position had not changed by mid-October when he said that some circumstances could require the use of ground troops, but he did not foresee such a possibility at present.
Meanwhile, the White House explained that it could only predict the use of ground troops in an advisory capacity, and the U.S. has already committed just under 1,000 such advisors to the Iraqi military and Kurds. In speaking at U.S. Central Command at MacDill AFB last month, President Barack Obama clearly disagreed with Gen. Dempsey’s suggestion that ground combat remained a possibility, however slight. He stated, “As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”
To further complicate matters, as of mid-October National Security Advisor Susan Rice firmly stated that no general has come forth to the White House suggesting ground combat forces are necessary at this time. Speaking on the same day as Secretary Rice, Gen. Dempsey said he remains unconvinced that the U.S. can maintain its position of just air strikes and serving in an advisory role to a weakened Iraqi military. Given that IS forces came within 15 miles of Baghdad’s airport, presenting a sufficient enough strategic threat to the region to require the use of Apache helicopters for close range strikes, Gen Martin’s approach to keeping more options open may prove to be the more accommodating solution that the US needs in light of facing a rogue force.
It is not that the U.S. lacks the knowledge and the capacity of how to fight IS; given the essential free reign that Iraq has permitted the U.S., the U.S. could fight IS back into Syria, making the group the sole problem of President Bashar al-Assad. What the U.S. lacks is the will to fight IS. After over a decade of war, the prospect of opening up yet another front in the supposedly concluded War on Terror has little support. Given thousands of deaths in the name of war, a prolonged recession, and a plethora of crises in the form of immigration and now Ebola, it would be hard to imagine any nation in such a circumstance having the stomach for yet another war.
Whether the U.S. will commit its military to the cause against IS remains unclear. We will have to wait and see if the president’s position remains another ill-fated red line in the sand.