Hammer and Anvil

How to Defeat ISIS

An Islamic State fighter near Kobani, October 7, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

At the top of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s agenda for 2015 is stopping the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Many critics assert that the current policy of limited air strikes is insufficient to defeat or seriously weaken ISIS and have offered radical alternatives. However, these “cures” are far worse than the disease. The best plan is to aggressively move forward within the broad parameters of the current strategy, building on its successes and vastly diminishing ISIS’ power and influence by the time U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office in two years. 


There are two prominent (and nearly polar opposite) alternatives to current policy. At one extreme, CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot calls for the deployment of up to 30,000 U.S. ground combat troops, a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone, and incentives to enlist Turkey as an active military partner in the fight—all in order to push the Kurds, the Shia-dominated Iraqi security forces, and Sunnis to work together to roll back ISIS from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. At the other extreme, retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula argues that a vastly expanded air campaign against ISIS’ leadership and economic and military centers of gravity can so weaken the group that a broad Sunni resistance will quickly rise up, making any U.S. Special Forces on the ground unnecessary.

These proposals are as unrealistic as they are ambitious. No doubt, Washington would love to find a silver bullet to quickly defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but neither of the proposals is likely to work as advertised. There are over 20 million Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, a large fraction of which are now cooperating (passively or actively) with ISIS and would fight hard to avoid Kurdish and Shia domination, much less American control. Meanwhile, sending in U.S. ground forces might help win bits of territory along the current perimeter of ISIS-held territory, but it is unlikely to weaken the

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