America’s muddled strategy against ISIS

Published: September 15, 2014
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Wars against militant groups like ISIS are definitely not won from the air. PHOTO: AFP

Wars against militant groups like ISIS are definitely not won from the air. PHOTO: AFP

After six years of trying to extricate itself from the Middle East, President Obama indicated how emphatically that effort failed when on September 10 he became the fourth consecutive American president to officially bomb Iraq. America’s decision to seriously escalate its military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) comes months after the militant outfit violently emerged as the one of the most formidable and terrifying groups in the Middle East. The recent massacres of religious minorities coupled with the high-profile murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff — all of it filmed and put on YouTube — convinced Obama, who up until now had been resisting any form of American involvement, to step up American air strikes and military cooperation with local groups and governments.

To be fair to the president, none of the options he had were any good. After decade-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little domestic consensus in a war-weary nation for yet another protracted military operation that has already exacted so much from the US in both human and economic terms. Obama also admitted that as awful as ISIS is, it hardly poses a direct threat to American national security. Having (rightly) been accused of a history of meddling in the Middle East, doing nothing was also politically expedient for the US.

But doing nothing is exactly what has gotten the US — and the Middle East — to this current crisis. The US ignored the warning bells that started ringing very early in the Syrian Civil War that large sections of the rebel groups are getting radicalised. The US also ignored the tyranny and oppression with which the Maliki-led Shia government ruled Iraq, alienating and antagonising its Sunnis. The US didn’t arm moderate rebel groups in Syria in fear of the weapons falling into the wrong hands (the ISIS ended up taking over more American arms left behind by the exiting forces than they ever could have by leaks in the Syrian rebel camps). Had the US decided to expand its aerial campaign back in 2011, the crisis — and its consequences — would definitely not have been so acute.

But how does this belated decision affect the Middle East now? Obama repeated his avowal not to commit ground troops, which is sensible. This means that the campaign will look more like its operations in Yemen, Somalia, — and Pakistan to an extent — rather than Iraq or Afghanistan, but wars against militant groups like ISIS are definitely not won from the air. They never have been.

ISIS militants are not hiding in remote areas, but actually manage and rule over large population centres like Mosul, Raqqa, and Tikrit; bombing large cities and population centres is not quite the same as inaccessible villages and the US cannot bomb them with the impunity with which they bombed Fata, for instance. The ISIS is also better equipped, better prepared, and better funded than its extremist competitors; it will bide its time and weather the storm, given that the US is looking to keep its operations at a minimum anyway. But even if the air strikes are as effective as the United States hopes they will be, drone strikes and assassinations are only effective in the short term; the amount of al Qaeda ‘number 3s’ that the US has taken out verges on the farcical. Air strikes hardly do any damage to operations or organisational infrastructure.

Questions also need to be asked about how American intervention will tilt the balance of power in Syria in particular. Obama has gone back from saying ‘Assad must go’, speaking of ‘red lines’ that were crossed and then crossed again. Surely an American campaign against the ISIS will only strengthen Assad’s control over Syria. This president is not the cavalier, trigger-happy buffoon that his predecessor was. But when it comes to the Middle East, Obama does not seem to be doing much better than him.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • Gp65
    Sep 15, 2014 - 2:54AM

    Why is the responsibility of confronting ISIS on USA after complaining so bitterly aout US involvement in Afghanistan? What are Saudi Arabia and Turjey doing to confront ISIS. They too. Have armies and money.

    Obama is not all confused. He believed that involvement in Iraq war started by Bush was wrong and he pulled US out of it. He focused on degrading Al Qaeda leadership in the Af-Pak region and succeeded woth Abbotabad raid as its crowning glory. After that he is withdrawing US from Afghanistan responsibly having learned lessons from the error in withsrawing forces from Afghanistan abruptly the last time around. He will degrade the ISIS too but will not commit US soldiers on the round and nor should he as he has no approval from the US citizens yo do so.

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  • Np
    Sep 15, 2014 - 2:58AM

    Why should US commit ground troops? It is the jb of Iraqi, Syrian, Saudi and Turkish soldiers o fight ISIS on the ground. There is Evidence that in the early days actually Turkey provided support to ISI leadership.

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  • Sonya
    Sep 15, 2014 - 2:47PM

    The US’s intentions to fight this self-created-controlled-enemy ISIS are doubtful and suspicious. ISIS reportedly emerged out of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria that US has assisted for the regime change business – they didn’t understand that the terrorists they are helping in Syria are not different from their counterparts in Iraq and they realized the threat only when ISIS controlled a large area. Similarly every country including Australia was out there to claim their citizens are fighting for ISIS therefore the notion about Al-Maliki’s policies aren’t relevant when ISIS consists of people from across Arab countries, Europe, Australia and USA.

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  • Sexton Blake
    Sep 15, 2014 - 5:58PM

    @Np:
    I heartily agree that the US should leave the whole alone to live in peace, but I am afraid its brutal plan for World Imperial Domination will not allow it. Additionally, there appears to be plenty of evidence that as well as the US creating incredible turmoil in the Middle-East generally, and Iraq particularly, they also trained and armed ISIS with a view to them taking out Syria’s Assad. Now the US is getting blow-back. I think it is termed “As ye sow, so shall ye reap”

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  • numbersnumbers
    Sep 16, 2014 - 12:22AM

    @Sexton Blake:
    All should note that @Sexton Blake’s keyboard somehow ran out of ink before he could provide any credible references that support his delusions that the US “trained and armed ISIS”!!!

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  • Sexton Blake
    Sep 16, 2014 - 12:55PM

    @numbersnumbers:
    Dear numbers,
    I am still waiting for you to provide, after many years, credible proof that 9/11 was not an inside job, and that President Obama managed to drop OBL’s body in the Arabian sea. Obviously, low functioning people, such as you and your supporters will support the official version anyway.

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  • numbersnumbers
    Sep 17, 2014 - 3:22AM

    @Sexton Blake:
    Obviously, low functioning people like yourself cannot possibly Google “death of Osama bin Laden” to see an excellent detailed account of the raid on Wikipedia, along with hundreds of supporting references!

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  • Sid
    Sep 17, 2014 - 3:40AM

    @Sexton Blake:
    And you, I am sure have all the proof that 9/11 was insider job and OBL is a myth. Please explain, why would Pakistani PM lie about acknowledging his presence and failure to identify it themselves ? Same way why they lied about acknowledging that Ajmal Kasab was Pakistani national ? Something is fundamentally wrong when you guys continue to frame conspiracy theories when the proof and your own government’s admittance says otherwise. This my dear is called “Living in denial”.
    P.S. I did witness a Pakistani cornered by Bangladeshis here in Houston, Texas when the Pakistani guy was trying to explain that Bangladesh was lost because of evil India. It was quite a firework of response from Bangladeshis to that poor chap. Wish had recorded and uploaded that on youtube to burst bubbles like the one you live in.

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  • Sexton Blakett
    Sep 17, 2014 - 11:42AM

    @numbersnumbers:
    Dear numbers,
    The world would obviously have problems if people believed the nonsense you referred them to.

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  • csmann
    Sep 22, 2014 - 12:51PM

    @Sexton Blakett:
    Mr. Blake again comes up with his mental yarn of USA being the culprit of anything and everything that happens in middle east.Did he not note that author and many others are blaming USA for not intervening in Syria.USA will follow its own policies whatever others think of it which is usually illogical and conflicting.

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  • Sexton Blake
    Sep 22, 2014 - 7:22PM

    @csmann:
    Dear camann,
    Great to hear from you again. However, like a few others, you are thinking small, and did not get it quite right. You probably believe what the corporate media is telling you, and of course when you have been conditioned from early childhood this is so easy to do. You should also understand that when someone disagrees with Government hyperbole, accuses the various governments of being mendacious, or suggests that they are being brutally mischievous, they can only give the main points, It is a given that readers should use their intelligence, and thought processes to fill in the gaps. It is my avowed aim to help people such as you, but I can only go so far. As Hercule Poirot pointed out: “you have to use those little grey cells”. I hope this is helpful for you, and others?

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  • Carubbean Critic
    Sep 22, 2014 - 8:02PM

    Why is the USA involved in all these middle east nations? Why are they involved in Ukraine? Why are they involved in western African Nations? why is the US involvement always MILITARY to protect the dollar never diplomacy? There is one answer to all these question Money!!! resources= money! the money is the US dollar! Bretton Woods it seems must be protected! All other US arguments are clearly specious mendacity. American exceptional ism and thuggery on clear display! Whilst the dumbed down population of America could not even point to many of the countries they invade on the world map! Never mind America is slowly collapsing Militarily, economically and morally!

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