One Year Later: Are We Any Safer?
Why do we mark the anniversaries of things? We mark them to remember what happened, and why, and to reflect on what’s changed since. But sometimes, anniversaries pass us by and we forget to do those things. We forget to get that gift for our partner, or we forget to mourn a loss. August 8 marked the one-year anniversary of the US entering the war against the Islamic State, and the American public and media barely took note. Perhaps securing the nuclear deal with Iran and preventing another major war in the Middle East is weighing heavier on our minds, as it should. But one year later we owe it to ourselves to ask: “what was the goal of waging war in Iraq and Syria and are we are moving towards that goal?” Was it to “degrade and destroy” ISIS? Was it to protect American lives or the lives of innocents caught up in a war-ravaged region? Was it to protect American interests in an oil-rich environment? Whatever the reasons for entering this war, it’s important to try to remember them, and question whether we should continue down this path of war.
Examining the current state of affairs in Iraq and Syria, and in the broader Middle East, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that things are a hot mess. ISIS controls wide swaths of territory, and ever-evolving proxy wars continue to muddle the lines between friends and enemies.
Last September, in an attempt to bolster the ground game in the war against ISIS without committing US ground forces to the effort, Congress authorized $500 million to arm and train Syrian rebels, now referred to as the New Syrian Forces. So far, the Pentagon has spent $42 million on the program and finished training only 60 fighters due in part to the rigorous vetting process. When those fighters reentered Syria two weeks ago to join the fight against ISIS, fighters from Al Nusra Front (an Al Qaida affiliate in Syria) attacked them, killing one and capturing at least five. Al Nurse is part of a coalition called the Army of Conquest, which formed in response to ISIS and is backed by our allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
To complicate matters further, we’ve been sharing a military base in Iraq with Iranian-backed Shia militias; all but working together in the fight against ISIS, while at the same time giving Saudi Arabia intelligence and logistical support for its air war on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
There are countless indications that the US military strategy in the Middle East is essentially a painful and seemingly endless game of Twister, but more disturbing than the growing contradictions of American proxy wars is the fact that despite our military’s best efforts to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the Sunni extremists are establishing a functioning state within Iraq and Syria. The US-led coalition has carried out over 6,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria killing thousands of ISIS fighters and yet ISIS remains a force to be reckoned with. Fueling their recruitment effort is the fact that coalition airstrikes have killed at least 459 civilians, including at least 100 children.
Some would argue that the failure thus far to make significant gains against ISIS rests on President Obama’s shoulders. Presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham argues that Obama has been a weak commander-in-chief, and that we should deploy 20,000 US troops in the fight against ISIS to pull “the caliphate up by the roots.” Graham’s weeding analogy is quaint, but a more apt analogy for his strategy would be mowing the lawn and then spraying it with Miracle Grow. Surely lessons from the Iraq War have taught us that while it is possible (through years of military occupation) to destroy or overthrow governments we dislike, the result is not more stability, but less. Yes, perhaps we could degrade or even defeat ISIS if we committed our troops to years of bloodshed and misery on the battlefield, but the result would almost certainly be an even more dangerous, unstable, and anti-American Middle East.
If we truly want to help stabilize the region and help forces on the ground defeat the Islamic State, we should end US military involvement and take the lead in promoting diplomatic and humanitarian approaches to the conflict. With 20.4 million people in Iraq and Syria in need of humanitarian aid, we need a comprehensive approach to ensure that refugees and displaced persons are not only getting food and water (which many of them still need), but also getting access to schools, hospitals, and other critical services that will help them lead normal lives again.
Diplomatically, we must work to cut off the flow of weapons into the Middle East, many of which have landed in the hands of ISIS. We should also expand our work to cut off ISIS’ revenue streams from exporting oil and other goods and work tirelessly with our partners in the region to promote diplomatic resolutions to conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War and the war in Yemen. Each of these diplomatic strategies become more viable the moment Congress fails to kill the Iran Nuclear Deal.
None of these strategies will solve everything or end the war overnight, but over time, they will bring more stability to the region, they will build good will towards the United States, and they will hit ISIS where it hurts by undermining one of its most potent recruiting messages; that the United States and the West are evil and should be targets of war.
Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and authorize American wars, and the current war against ISIS has not been authorized. The administration continues to use the 2001 and 2002 authorizations of force as legal justification for this war, and one year later, Congress remains criminally negligent for shirking one of its most important duties. Americans must hold their representatives accountable and demand that Congress debate and vote on whether or not to authorize this war, before it becomes another endless war in the Middle East.