Saving Iraq and Destroying ISIL are Not the Same Thing


It has been reported that President Obama is revisiting his policy toward Syria. Perhaps he is now pausing to assess, before incautiously and unadvisedly wading into a conflict with no clear or imaginable resolution. But before he leads America into the next season of a regional conflict he wants a better plan, and he has turned to his national security advisors to provide him with one.

Thus far, the results have not inspired much confidence. As reported by CNN and according to senior officials, the President’s national security team’s meetings were “driven to a large degree [to determine] how our Syria strategy fits into our ISIS strategy.” One senior official was quoted: “The President has asked us to look again at how this fits together. The long-running Syria problem is now compounded by the reality that to genuinely defeat ISIL, we need not only a defeat in Iraq but a defeat in Syria.” The quote conveys the misguided nature of the entire exercise. Now that terrorist organizations have declared allegiance to ISIL in Sinai, Libya and Pakistan, will we now need to formulate a plan to “genuinely defeat” the group’s ideological adherents in these places as well?

It is clear that the President’s national security team is going about this backwards, trying to twist and contort tactical responses into a “strategy” that fits the ever-changing conditions on the ground in this fraught region. Before the President can ask for a strategy, he needs to articulate a realistic objective. What does he want to achieve? Simply put, what does victory look like? The first step in building a coherent strategy is determining a strategic objective. That may sound simple or rhetorical but it is neither. Here are two examples of strategic objectives the President can use:

Strategic Objective #1: Stabilize Iraq.

Strategic Objective #2: Destroy ISIL.

These two objectives are not the same thing. They should not be conflated, as they call for different methods and strategies that may dovetail and resemble each other in certain respects, but bear very different long-range outcomes. In September, the President named the latter one as his goal. As part of this strategic re-assessment, the President should pivot to the former. This is true for several reasons but chiefly because a secure and stable Iraq is a strategic necessity for the United States and the region, and far eclipses the destruction of ISIL, an organization whose existence is symptomatic and not the cause of Iraq’s ills. The second and only slightly less important reason is the following: Iraq can be stabilized without destroying ISIL. That’s good news. It will be expensive, it will take time, and at this point, success is far from certain. But the stabilization of Iraq is a location to which we can draw a map. It is critical that this be America’s objective in engaging ISIL, because the bad news is we can’t destroy it.

There is no reasonable strategy that will enable America to defeat ISIL militarily in Syria. Whether we train 400 or 800 so-called “moderates” every month, there is no chance they will ever have the experience, fortitude, or public support to dislodge ISIL. We will continue to see our proxies defect to the enemy. We will increasingly see our own weapons fired back at us and our allies as they further proliferate the battle space, making satirical pieces like this seem less funny and more prophetic. And if ISIL merges with Nusra Front (the major and broadly popular Syrian Islamist rebel movement affiliated with al Qaeda) – it will be “game over” for any “moderate” Free Syrian Army folks we’ve canonized as the third way between Assad and ISIL. That might actually be a good thing, as it would clarify for policymakers that other than the Kurds (who are fighting at both the geographic and political margins of the country), we have no real friends in Syria, let alone any who are capable of defeating ISIL and taking on Assad’s forces. Stabilizing Iraq needs to be our strategic objective not only because Iraq is geo-politically more important to American interests, but because we can only build strategies to outcomes that are achievable. There is no strategic reason to intervene in Syria because we can’t even conceive of a reasonable political outcome, let alone draw a roadmap to one.

If the President can consign himself to war-planning in the realm of the possible, we can begin to build a strategy to secure and stabilize Iraq and enable it to provide for its own security. It will in broad terms consist of a plan to continue weakening ISIL through targeted airstrikes; undercut ISIL’s finances by cutting its access to banks and destroying its ability to pump and sell oil on the black market; train security forces on the ground in Iraq that can defeat ISIL and secure the country’s borders; and push for reforms in Baghdad that enfranchise Iraqis and reduce sectarian tension. You’ll notice that until now, Syria is not mentioned anywhere in this paragraph. That’s because everything we do in Syria will be a tactic that somehow advances us toward our strategic objective of stabilizing Iraq. For example, if we bomb ISIL targets in Syria, we should do so to prevent the reinforcement or resupply of ISIL forces in Iraq. For our military’s actions to be strategic, they must be linked to a clear, overarching and achievable purpose.

We need to be able to draw a line from the actions we take on the ground to the political outcomes we want to achieve. Once Iraq is stable and whole and capable of securing its border with Syria, we can leave, or at the very least, scale down to truly covert, short, counterterrorism operations meant to deny ISIL and al-Nusra the capability to wage terror attacks against American targets. We now have a strategic objective and the very broad contours of a strategy. This should have been the easy part. The really difficult part comes next: execution.

The Department of Defense has spent 8 years and $25 billion training Iraq’s military forces. And then we watched in horror as they failed catastrophically when confronted by ISIL’s version of Shock and Awe. Figuring out why that happened and incorporating some lessons learned from that debacle should be a priority as we send military advisors back to start again. It already appears this is happening as our efforts to train Iraqi forces this time will focus on quality and not quantity.

Cutting off ISIL’s money supply is critical to degrading its battlefield capabilities and its ability to terrorize and rule local populations. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi isn’t hiding his organization’s millions under the mattress, which means that there are banks out there that are working with and profiting from ISIL’s exploits. The Department of Treasury needs to identify them and shut them down while continuing to disrupt the militant group’s ability to generate oil revenue through airstrikes. The Administration has shown reluctance to target banks, fearing that the consequent economic hardship would drive locals toward ISIL. That’s a valid concern, but placed in the framework of our presumed strategic goal of stabilizing Iraq, a necessary risk.

Finally, how can the United States strengthen the Iraqi government’s institutions so they have the authority and support to govern and defend Iraq’s borders in perpetuity? If Iraq’s central government can keep all of its constituents enfranchised, it can deny ISIL (or any other militant threat) the political space to sprout and the security vacuum in which to operate.

America’s success in Iraq rests on its ability to execute on these issues. These are the tough questions, and our strategic response to them is what should determine our ability to complete the mission – not our inability to define what the mission is.


Jonathan Lord is a private sector research analyst in security matters and a graduate of Vassar College and the Georgetown University Security Studies Program.