Friday, September 12, 2014

An ‘Obamian’ Strategy to Combat the Islamic State

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy continues to dither. To intervene or not to intervene; to strike or not to strike, be it in Libya or Syria or Iraq is a dilemma which has dogged the Obama Presidency.

Having drawn flak over not outlining any clear strategy yet on how to check the Islamic State's murderous advance, US President Barack Obama finally seems to have a clear “game plan” on ISIS offensive which he disclosed in a speech on 10th September.

Obama held a news conference on 5th September at the conclusion of the NATO Summit in Wales, touching on the crisis in both Ukraine and Iraq. Obama echoed the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that the U.S. was committed to “destroying” the extremist group within three years as he announced a plan for an international coalition to confront the group in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama unequivocally said that the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State must be dismantled, degraded, and "ultimately defeated," days after he earned criticism for saying the goal was to roll back the organization to a point it was “manageable”.
Appearing in an interview on the NBC's “Meet the Press”, Obama told the moderator Chuck Todd that the US has a capability to deal with the serious threat posed by the Islamic State and over a course of months, the US will manage to blunt, degrade and defeat the extremists.

“Over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em,” said Obama.

The broad grand strategy that is being conjured up by the US President is to form an international coalition and regional partnerships to attack the Islamic State in order to degrade and destroy its operations. What the President is indicating is that the US is committed to providing air support, logistics and training to its allies in the region. Period! The US will not take active part in ground combat. 

While agreeing to the fact that the US can't defeat ISIS with air strikes alone, Obama said that it was not possible to "deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East".

"'We've got to have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground have to be Iraqi...  and in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian," said Obama.

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” he said. Obama compared the new initiative to smaller-scale fights the United States has engaged in. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” he said.

But the scope of the new operation — which will immediately involve expanded airstrikes, additional U.S. personnel in Iraq and new support for moderate Syrian rebels — is likely to overshadow those two efforts. In the 13-minute address, Obama did not give a fixed date for when the operation might end, and his top aides have suggested it might last beyond his time in office.

The US under Obama is embarking on a military campaign bereft of any strategic objectives. The planning too is cumbersome because it involves an international coalition of ten countries as well as the Arab countries of the region whose politico-military objectives may well be different from and in conflict with the US agenda. There is also mutual distrust and infighting amongst the Arab states which is not very encouraging for the anti-IS alliance.

Wars against insurgents are fought and won, if at all, on the ground, not in the air or not from the air. Proof of this is seen in Afghanistan (2001 onwards) Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011). But Obama's forces is likely to comprise, initially at least, of the remnants of Iraqi army troops (who were sent fleeing by ISIS during its spring offensive around Mosul), Kurdish peshmerga, Syrian rebels, Shia militias and, possibly, moderate Sunni tribal groups.  A thousand or more US service personnel who have been deputed to Iraq are involved in facilitating airstrikes and training local forces. An additional 475 personnel are likely to be sent to Iraq which is unlikely to make any qualitative difference on the ground.

Obama’s emerging strategy depends on cooperation and contributions from regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, besides the sustainability of a new government in Iraq.

A serious flaw is getting a motley group of ten nations (the US along with Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Australia, Italy and Turkey) to contribute and cooperate in militarily combating the IS. As to why Obama sought volunteers from the North Atlantic Alliance to form a coalition to fight the IS is anybody’s guess.  It is not clear why he thinks those NATO countries -- with the exception of Turkey -- will spend money and risk lives (and reprisals in the form of terror attacks) to contain the Islamic State. Turkey (which is following Pakistan’s policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds) which is presumably one of the members of this coalition has been accused of turning a blind eye to the IS’ activities along the jihadist highway that feeds the extremist elements in Syria. Jihadis transit Turkey to get into the ranks of ISIS, and the Turks buy millions of dollars worth of diesel fuel that the IS smuggle out.

In its obsession to remove Bashar al- Assad from power, Turkey’s ruling political dispensation did not bother to distinguish between moderate Syrian groups and jihadists like the IS. It was Ankara’s pro-Islamist policies in Syria (and Egypt) that paved the way for this catastrophe.

It remains to be seen how Turkey’s policies will alter the Obama administration’s relationship with Ankara, but the President’s choice of language in recent months has been increasingly accusatory and underlies the West’s sense of frustration. In his August 28 speech, Obama said: “The truth is that we’ve had state actors who at times have thought that the way to advance their interests is, ‘Well, financing some of these groups as proxies is not such a bad strategy.’”

Qatar, though not a partner in the coalition against the IS, is a long-time regional ally of the US and is known to have funded Islamist groups like the Hamas and Al Nusra and has had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood. The German Development Minister, Gerd Muller recently hinted that Qatar may be funding the IS. According to the US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, Qatar has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability. Mr. Cohen also stated that press reports indicated that the Qatari government was also supporting groups in Syria. According to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Qatar is a “frenemy”. On one hand it hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East at Al Udeid; invests billions of dollars in the US and across the globe in a bid to make itself indispensable and acts as the ‘white knight’ intermediary in hostage negotiations.

Too many pitfalls

The principal problem with this grand strategy is that US is leading a coalition “from behind” – Obama has unequivocally stated that there would be no US boots on the ground; a small number of US troops would be involved in training the forces fighting the IS and the US Air Force would be involved in carrying out strikes in Iraq and Syria. President Obama’s comparisons with Somalia and Yemen are misplaced. No two conflicts can be fought with the same strategy or tactics. The situation in Iraq and Syria threatens to engulf the whole region in a conflict without end. This is not the case with the Al Qaeda in Yemen or al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The “regional partnerships” which the White House is trying to conjure is extremely fragile and ambiguous. For instance, Saudi Arabia has agreed to host and help fund the training program, according to White House officials. Saudi Arabia, while being supportive of the United States, worries that going to war with IS could provoke a backlash among Sunni extremists in its own population. Jordan has agreed to help with providing intelligence. Turkey, as stated above, is likely to be non-committal notwithstanding the fact that the IS holds 49 kidnapped Turkish diplomats as hostage. In June, Sunni militants with ISIS stormed the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq, kidnapping the consul general and other members of his staff, and their families, including three children.

The Arab League pledged on Sunday to take steps to defeat the Islamic State, although it did not officially agree to back U.S. action against the terrorist organization. Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby asked the 22-member body to set aside regional infighting for possible military action against the Islamic State.

Another problem would be to act against the financiers of IS in the Gulf region. Stemming the flow of money that finances the Islamic State’s operations in Syria and Iraq is one of the top ways Arab countries can make a difference. Apart from Qatar, private individuals in the region provide a substantial amount of funding to the extremist groups. Direct monetary contributions are frequently disguised as charitable donations, and the Islamic State is adept at raising funds from ransoms and smuggling, according to Bloomberg.

Further any campaign against terrorism or insurgency is open-ended. The duration of such conflicts is uncertain; it may well be a war without end, like the one being waged against Al Qaeda or al-Shabaab. According to senior Administration officials, the campaign may take three years to end. If the conflict were to drag on for more than a year, it is debatable whether the coalition and regional partnerships would remain united in its resolve to defeat the IS.

Zvi Bar’el wrote in The Haaretz: “There is no sense even in arguing about the plan’s military benefit, since Obama is not suggesting a solution for the ideological threat that Islamic State poses. Obama is selling tickets to a long, expensive show that has no plot, a show he will be producing only because he received permission from the theater owners.” According to him no foreign force, even a well-equipped one, will be able to replace a strong, determined local power.

One only hopes that this military campaign does not end up degrading the US Presidency and that Obama does not leave behind a troubled legacy for his successor in 2017.

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