Analysis: Why the U.S. is losing the war against the Islamic State

By Harlan Ulman  |  Dec. 7, 2014 at 4:09 PM
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Make no mistake. On the current trajectory, the United States is losing the war against the Islamic State and the reasons why are clear.

Most telling are the White House's use of minimal means in waging this war while seemingly assuming full responsibility for its conduct; and failure to make the case that the threat posed by IS extends far beyond Iraq and Syria.

Ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made returning to the latter difficult. The White House has declared it will not deploy U.S. ground forces to defeat IS. As a result, President Barack Obama seems driven more by ambivalence and not the decisiveness, resolve and determination necessary for success.

An effective fighting coalition against IS, the only means to prevail, has not been fully formed yet. The Iraqi government still must reconcile the enduring conflicts among Shia, Sunni and Kurd. That same government lacks the capacity for restoring effective governance in territories once occupied by IS. And because of its public relations spin, the White House has mistakenly created the perception of a unilateral American war against IS, sparing others the responsibility for winning it.

If IS is to be beaten, regional states must shoulder the lion's share of that burden. Unless and until Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and the other members of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) act more aggressively and comprehensively against IS, the U.S. cannot prevail as a surrogate. Additionally, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Israel are threatened by IS. These states must become committed partners in defeating IS. Unfortunately, this coalition is nascent and happy to hold America's coat while it does the fighting.

The broader nature of this conflict is ultimately against violent radical religious extremism, manifested by IS's perversion of Islam. Muslims number about 1.3-1.5 billion people. Assuming 99.99% of all Muslims reject the violence and ideologies of IS, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, that still leaves at least 1.5 million potential fellow travelers or worse. That number could grow much larger.

This cohort, larger than the U.S. military, has global access. The current fight against IS neglects this broader danger. For the time being, IS has established a caliphate across large swaths of Syria and Iraq. But what prevents IS from expanding its reach? Saudi Arabia must be high on IS's target list.

Reportedly, IS cells have been established in Pakistan and Libya. Russia, China and India have large Muslim populations. Given the many explosive social, religious, economic and political issues in each of those states, the grounds are ripe for penetration by IS. Further proliferation of IS-inspired violence may prove inevitable.

If IS spreads, will America or the coalition follow in hot pursuit? If not, then what happens? And how does this war end? With no apparent battleship deck on which IS accepts surrender, finality in this current conflict is elusive.

How can IS be defeated? First, states must be fully convinced, cajoled or coerced into joining a global alliance against IS. That means the larger danger posed by IS must be fully recognized. This will be a very tough sell. But unless this coalition forms, and the U.S. must be far more decisive and persuasive in making it work, IS will survive and even flourish. Here the U.S. must lead from both the front and at times more subtly from behind.

Coalition air strikes to degrade IS must continue. IS must be expelled from the territories it occupies in Iraq and thoroughly repudiated and rejected by local populations. Iraqi and Kurdish Pesh Merga forces will take the military lead in reoccupying captured territory. If local forces prove insufficient, regional partners must provide military reinforcements.

A powerful counter narrative to IS's murderous and barbaric ideology must immediately be fashioned and widely disseminated especially by Shia and Sunni religious leaders. Silence is tantamount to acceptance. And financial and economic nooses must be tightened around IS.

Finally, without Iran, Russia and Syria's Bashar al Assad -- who Mr. Obama demanded leave office -- IS will not be driven from Syria. Balancing these disparate and conflicting priorities requires great political courage because the backlash to any cooperation with these actors will ignite a political firestorm in Washington. Churchill could ally with his Soviet bête noir Josef Stalin against the more evil threat of Adolph Hitler. But this is not 1941 nor a fight to the finish against Nazism.

The Obama administration has preferred rhetoric and half measures so far because it was unwilling to re-engage in Iraq. Rhetoric is no substitute for action. To defeat IS decisive leadership and determined commitment are essential. Otherwise, the fight against IS will not be won. ____________________________________________________________________ Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces The Peace.

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