FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: The Arab Spring at Five

How to Defeat ISIS

The Case for U.S. Ground Forces

A Free Syrian Army fighter near Deraa, Syria January 2, 2016. Alaa Al-Faqir / Reuters

In September 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama, usually so optimistic about the future of the liberal world order, grimly described the challenges to it before the UN General Assembly: “dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world.” The threat of the Islamic State (also called ISIS) is only one of those currents, but it is certainly the most immediately threatening, a pseudo-state with an army, access to funding, an appealing religion-based ideology, and the capability to launch, or inspire, mass terrorist attacks anywhere. It is bankrupting those regional states that are trying to cope with it and providing the excuse for a destabilizing Russian regional intervention and a budding axis with Damascus and Tehran.

U.S. officials beginning with Obama have repeatedly stressed that the U.S. mission is not to contain ISIS but to “defeat” and “destroy” it. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has twice stated that we are “at war” with ISIS. And given the group’s potential for mayhem, this policy is wise. Yet 18 months after the first U.S. troops were ordered to Iraq to counter ISIS, the group has neither been defeated nor, according recently to Carter and JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford, even contained.

More remarkable is that the United States arguably has the means to destroy the group through its current policy of air support, train-and-equip programs to build up local allies, and special forces strikes—but only if they are augmented with at least some U.S. ground forces. Yet the administration has dug in on its refusal to send ground troops to the conflict, even as it begrudgingly taps other types of military power, including special forces advisors closer to the front, high-end special forces raiding teams, Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships aimed at the ISIS oil truck fleet. In his December 6 address to the nation, Obama gave this reason for the ground forces ban: using them would result in a “long and costly ground war.” He continued

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