Third Verse, Same as the First

June 25, 2015

The President has now clearly indicated, on three separate occasions, that he does not take ISIS seriously. The first indication of this was on Jan. 7, 2014, four days after ISIS terrorists captured Fallujah and raised ISIS flags over Iraqi government buildings. “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” he said.

“But that JV team just took over Fallujah,” the New Yorker’s David Remnick reminded the President.

“I understand,” Obama replied, but “how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology [are] a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

The choice was clear from the start—the US could go to war to defeat ISIS or choose to ignore it. Instead of making a decision, the US has now stumbled along for a year-and-a-half.

The second clear signal of Obama’s ambivalence came last June, after ISIS forces routed government forces and overran Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The President authorized limited air strikes and stepped up USAF’s efforts to avert looming humanitarian disasters.

Nearly three weeks after the air campaign began, Obama admitted, “We don’t have a strategy yet.” The Administration did not come forward with its “strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS for weeks.

The US clearly ramped up the scope of the effort at that point, by sending additional train-and-assist troops to Iraq and expanding air strikes into Syria. Overall, however, America’s combat effort remained a low-level air campaign.

Obama has now indicated for a third time that he just doesn’t take the war against ISIS, or ISIL, seriously. The President said June 8 that coalition forces “have made significant progress in pushing back ISIL … [but] they’re displaced in one place then they come back in, in another. And they’re nimble, and they’re aggressive, and they’re opportunistic.”

Little is being done about this. Why isn’t the US response also nimble, aggressive, and opportunistic? These are the very benefits a serious airpower campaign would bring. Instead, the President expressed continuing desire for the US to work at low levels, behind the scenes, supporting local forces.

The US is “reviewing a range of plans [for] accelerating the number of Iraqi forces that are properly trained and equipped and have a focused strategy and good leadership,” Obama said.

“When a finalized plan is presented to me by the Pentagon, then I will share it with the American people. We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis.”

In other words, US strategy is at the mercy of Iraqi forces the US has already spent the better part of a decade attempting to develop, train, and professionalize. The same Iraqi forces Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently said “just showed no will to fight.”

The Administration doubled down on the support role. “In furtherance of his comprehensive strategy to degrade and destroy the ISIL terrorist group, President Obama has approved additional actions,” read a June 10 White House announcement centered on sending another 450 troops to train indigenous forces. “These additional US troops will not serve in a combat role,” the White House made clear.

“Despite years of training by thousands of US and coalition forces, the army has not been able to halt Islamic State aggression,” noted retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute, in a June 5 Washington Post op-ed. “What makes anyone think that a few more months of similar training will yield success?”

The Administration appears unwilling to make the tough choices required here. There are good reasons to avoid putting US forces in Iraq or Syria. If ground troops are deployed, whether as combat forces, for intelligence, or as combat controllers to call in air strikes, the US will have to supply them and protect them. We can expect that any American troops captured by ISIS will be tortured and executed with video cameras rolling. Ultimately, Iraq and Syria must be responsible for their own security.

As Commander in Chief, it is Obama’s prerogative to walk away from this fight, but he has instead chosen a halfhearted approach. If this is a battle worth fighting, it should be fought to win.

Top Air Force officials say airpower, even in a limited form, has been working in this battle. Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, says the Air Force prevents ISIS forces from massing and has cut off their ability to sell stolen oil.

These are especially important considerations because ISIS does not aspire to be a terror organization—it wishes to be an actual nation, which means it must come out of hiding and govern. When the Air Force is overhead, ISIS cannot do so without fear of destruction.

The rules of engagement need to be loosened, because three-quarters of today’s strike sorties do not deliver weapons. As Deptula asked, “What is the logic of a policy that restricts the use of airpower to avoid the possibility of collateral damage while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes against humanity?”

If the US is going to defeat ISIS, many more air strikes are necessary, supported by Americans on the ground. “It has never been more difficult to identify friend or foe,” said Lt. Gen. John W. Hesterman III, commander of US Air Forces Central Command, June 8, explaining the care the US takes to avoid civilian casualties. “What we need is precise information about where the enemy is.” Sending in special operations forces and joint terminal attack controllers would help.

At the current level of air effort, all the coalition has been able to do is fight ISIS to a draw. A stalemate accomplishes nothing but putting aircrews in danger every time they fly over ISIS-held territory.