On September 10, President Barack Obama delivered a widely anticipated speech addressing the alarming growth in the scope and power of the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The president announced that in order to defeat ISIS, the United States would ramp up military intervention in the Middle East, arming insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq and using airstrikes to support allies in the region. The speech was important. For the first time since he announced a surge in Afghanistan at the beginning of his presidency—a surge in which I played a small role, as a company commander deployed to Kunduz Province—the president is publicly and deliberately committing the U.S. military to ongoing actions in that area. Tuesday, he made good on that promise, hitting Islamic State and Al Qaeda targets in Syria and Iraq with airstrikes and cruise missiles.
The civil wars in Syria and Iraq have provoked widespread outrage: anger at the unscrupulous and repressive leaders, Assad and al-Maliki, who have governed the countries so ruthlessly; horror at the brutal sectarian violence; grief for the shattered families, the refugees—over 2 million and counting—and the nearly two-hundred-thousand lives lost so far. The natural human response to such suffering is to try to end it as quickly as possible, by any means necessary. In this case, however, acting on that desire is the worst thing America could do. Recent historical evidence suggests that if we intervene, we are less likely to end the suffering than to compound it, stretching the killing out over decades instead of years.
Beyond this, the danger is that such a move will play right into the hands of those we wish to defeat. It is important to understand that ISIS does not simply want to kill Americans. True, they don’t like us, and they don’t mind venting their frustration on those citizens unlucky enough to fall into their clutches. But their primary objective is to unify the Middle East under a particularly grim and violent form of Sunni Islam. And the best recruiting tool for ISIS, as for Al Qaeda, has been an America bent on intervention. The limited interventions that we typically undertake today, relying on drone strikes and/or house raids by special forces, all too often set communities against America; such actions may kill one or five or thirty “bad guys”—and create ten or fifty or five hundred more.
This is why ISIS has dedicated so much propaganda toward the West, and why it makes such a gruesome show of beheading Western journalists: ISIS is terrified that America will not get involved. American interventions can make a potential ISIS recruit out of someone whose uncle's house was destroyed by a drone, or help ISIS demagogues blame the United States for the plight of refugees stuck in camps. To someone who has suffered loss or displacement, religious extremism may seem attractive in comparison. When an extremist mullah cuts off the hand of a thief, the act may be barbaric, but it has a measure of logic behind it—unlike, say, a drone strike that wipes out a family celebrating a wedding. Having America as a military enemy helps miscreants like Al Qaeda and ISIS galvanize constituent populations in ways that they cannot if they are seen as merely waging a battle for supremacy with rival believers or ethnic groups. What ISIS relies on is a kind of bait-and-switch. They need us as their enemy.
Proponents of a limited intervention against ISIS advocate a combination of counterterrorism plus the military help of a regional proxy. But who should that be? Since neither Iran nor Assad’s Syrian government are acceptable, we are actively considering both the Kurds and the moderate Syrian rebel alliance known as the Free Syrian Army (or FSA). Both options come with severe drawbacks. Arming the Kurds means abandoning the geographical structure of Iraq—a structure that has remained intact since the era of British rule—while enraging and destabilizing our NATO partner Turkey, which has its own Kurdish separatist problem. As for the FSA, they are notoriously unreliable; any weapons or aid we give them tend to end up in the hands of ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
We cannot simply will a politically convenient partner into existence. In the absence of such a partner we are likely to fall back on the “whack-a-mole” approach of targeting and killing high-ranking terrorists via air strikes or drone strikes, or with Special Operations soldiers such as SEALs, Rangers, Delta, and other deployable (and often deniable) assets. The primary argument against this approach is that we’ve been doing it since September 11, 2001, and the bad guys keep coming. Meanwhile, there's no sign that the ever-popular resort to "surgical" airstrikes will deliver what we want. In his masterful book, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam, Mark Clodfelter argues that bombing does very little to stop people from picking up arms in a conflict. What I observed in two and a half years of combat in Afghanistan convinced me he is right.
And what is it that we want, in fact? What rationale lies behind the move to expand our military actions in the region? Some who support greater military intervention in Iraq and Syria cite concern that the United States is about to be attacked by ISIS. But these concerns are wildly inflated; when weighed against, say, the violent deaths caused by the drug war in Mexico, or the potential for thermonuclear war with Russia, the actual threat posed to America by ISIS is trivial. ISIS and Al Qaeda are primarily interested in attacking other groups in their area, with a notable but secondary or tertiary desire to export their violence to America. And intelligence agencies agree; as the New York Times reported recently, no intelligence exists to suggest that ISIS is planning an attack on the United States.
As for using the military for humanitarian missions, yes, there are times when intervention makes sense as a last resort, when all other options have been exhausted and we must act to avert catastrophe. Bill Clinton has said that doing nothing during the Rwandan genocide was his greatest regret as president. But such actions require “boots on the ground”—and nobody on the left or right is advocating a full-scale, boots-on-the ground invasion of Iraq or Syria. Air power alone, meanwhile, has rarely stopped a genocide, and the groups we’ve paid over the years to act as our proxies have usually ended up conducting ethnic cleansings of their own. Furthermore, we have not used sanctions to discourage the states, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that are supporting ISIS; indeed we haven't even explored that possibility, at least not publicly. Either stopping genocide isn’t our real objective—whether it should be is a different discussion—or we’re applying the wrong set of tools to the problem.
With all the money we have spent—on military invasions, bombs, carrier-group deployments, handouts to corrupt Afghans and Iraqis masquerading as well-intentioned reconstruction efforts—and all the blood we’ve shed, it’s worth reviewing the fruits of our labor. Afghanistan: the Taliban in control of large swaths of countryside, warlords in control of most of the rest. Iraq: an unmitigated disaster, recoverable only by allying with a country led by Holocaust-deniers. Libya: equally grim, thanks to well-armed and dedicated Islamist fighters. Egypt: back under the control of a hated dictator. Yemen: beset by Al Qaeda, Sunni separatists in the east, and Shia separatists in the north and west. Syria: twice as bad as Iraq, if that’s possible.
This is what intervention has produced—or at least failed to prevent.
THERE ARE WAYS TO fight ISIS and Al Qaeda without using bullets or bombs. We can hit them where it really hurts: by reaching the people they cultivate as future fighters. The best way to curb these groups is to address the situation that gave rise to them in the first place—namely, the refugee camps, like those in Pakistan that provided so many Pashtun Sunnis willing to fight against the Soviets, and the secular Afghans that succeeded them. Our best long-term chance for success is to take responsibility for refugee camps, making sure that the 2 million displaced Syrians have a chance at a normal life. Make sure they’re educated, to Western standards. Fed, to Western standards. Brought into the global community. That’s the real fight. There isn’t much we can do about the eighteen-year-old jihadist who's carrying an M4 he picked up off the body of an American-trained FSA militiaman or Iraqi soldier. Our real target is the ten-year-old kid who’s listening to a radical Islamic preacher tell him that the only true way is jihad.
Violence begets violence, revenge begets revenge. America has sufficient resources to keep fighting for years, but not indefinitely, and that’s exactly what Osama bin Laden hoped—that we’d exhaust and bankrupt ourselves, fighting in a thousand little conflicts, while providing a recruiting tool for his side's propagandists. Dropping bombs won’t restabilize the region in the short run, while empowering groups like ISIS (or worse) in the long run. With aid, however, we can prevent ISIS from coming back ten times stronger a decade from now. Iran seems fully committed to propping up Iraq and Assad’s regimes. Let’s let them. It’s time we started spending our money on the future, instead of continuing to condemn our present to an irretrievable past.