U.S. leadership of the war on terrorism has entered its second phase.
Dealing with Islamic State forces in Iraq is just another leg of the fight.
Deciding to expand U.S. bombing to Syria with the goal of destroying the terrorist group’s leadership and about two-thirds of its fighters will take years.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a warning for those who thought a quick dose of U.S. firepower could do the trick.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked what would be required “to destroy them [the Islamic State] within 90 days.”
“It’s not possible, Senator,” Dempsey replied. “We could destroy a lot of equipment; we could drive them underground, if you will. But as I said, they will only be defeated or destroyed once they’re rejected by the populations in which they hide.”
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were the Pearl Harbor of this war on terrorism, and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida was only the beginning.
Bin Laden showed other terrorist leaders how to gain attention, along with recruits and financial support: Challenge the world’s major superpower.
His goal in bringing down the World Trade Center, hitting the Pentagon and killing thousands of Americans was to force the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Middle East, where his real targets were Saudi Arabia’s royal family and the secular leaders in Egypt, Libya and Iraq.
Bin Laden was wrong about the United States. The country rallied around Bush, and core al-Qaida — which was never large — saw its operations disrupted, senior leaders captured or killed, and its financial support squeezed.
Yet, even bin Laden’s death has not ended al-Qaida’s threat to the United States. Offshoots have appeared in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, North Africa and Syria — primarily where Sunni or other groups felt mistreated by their own governments. All required U.S. attention.
Extensive intelligence activities at home and abroad, helped by some luck, have allowed the country to escape another major terrorist attack — aside from the bombing last year at the Boston Marathon.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, has emerged as a major threat, thanks to his brutality, public relations skills, and military successes in Iraq and Syria. He topped it all with horrendous beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Those acts showed that Baghdadi had learned from bin Laden — but in a simpler, bloody way — how he could get the attention of Americans and the world.
Such a terrorist group “will only be defeated when moderate Arab and Muslim populations in the region reject it,” Dempsey told the Senate panel Tuesday. “And therefore, the way forward seems to me to run clearly through a coalition of Arab and Muslim partners and not through the ownership of the United States in this issue.”
The plan is to get the new Baghdad government to reach out to Sunni areas where the Islamic State, according to Dempsey, has either “coerced or co-opted or driven away” about 48 to 54 Sunni tribes. U.S. military teams have assessed that 26 of 50 Iraqi army brigades “are capable of partnering” with U.S. air support.
Getting forces on the offensive in the west and north of Iraq, while the Kurds, with U.S. support, press from the north to the south, “I think will place [the Islamic State] in an untenable position,” Dempsey said.
Syria is much harder. First, there is no central party to work with there.
The Syrian moderate military units that the United States hopes to develop need “a chain of command responsive to some Syrian political structure, not responsive to us,” Dempsey said. “These can’t be simply surrogates and proxies; they have to be tied, linked to some political structure that ultimately could assist in the governing of Syria when finally the Assad regime is either overthrown or, through the negotiation, is changed.”
Another problem is that the U.S. plan envisions training just 5,000 fighters a year, in small groups that go through in eight-week cycles. The first three to five months, however, will be devoted to setting up training facilities primarily in Saudi Arabia, then recruiting mostly among refugees outside Syria. “We think we’ll be recruiting mostly from displaced populations, and therefore it won’t be as though they’re giving up the security of their families to come and train with us,” Dempsey said.
This fighting force’s task is to go after Islamic State targets in Syria, aided by U.S.-directed air power. “The number that our military planners were considering was about 12,000,” Dempsey said at the hearing.
The U.S.-trained Syrians would not be the only forces on the ground, according to Dempsey.
“If you’re asking me how does the opposition in Syria finally prevail against [the Islamic State], I think it’s going to require the assistance of, in particular, Jordanians and probably some of the Syrian Kurds, and probably the Turks.”
President Obama and top administration officials need to prepare the country for this next phase. This will not be quick, though the number of Americans on the ground will not be great.
Clearly, however, it is a work in progress with no guaranteed end in sight.