“Boots on the Ground” is the Wrong Question for Iraq and ISIS

"Should the U.S. put boots on the ground in Iraq/Syria?"

Iraqi security forces march on the outskirts of Najaf (Reuters)

Iraqi security forces march on the outskirts of Najaf (Reuters)

This question, posed by honest and intellectual commentators, does more harm than good by simplifying the situation and distracting us from the wider array of possible solutions. The debate instead should focus on how to stabilize the situation in Iraq and Syria, and consider the many contexts that accompany military action in the region. ‘Boots on the ground’ is a frame that exaggerates overt assistance by Western forces in combat and advisory roles in conjunction with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and moderate Syrian rebels, with the objective of defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, better known as ISIS. It limits debate to a purely military context and ignores factors that could potentially derail efforts to establish stability in the region.  Although those who pose this question undoubtedly understand there are possibilities between overt military presence and purely diplomatic measures, the question itself effectively polarizes more nuanced plans to one of these two extremes. This limits the creation of more realistic plans by forcing planners to consider that their ideas may be unduly characterized as suggesting ‘boots on the ground’ or not.  If the United States is to create a lasting peace in Syria and Iraq, it must forget this simplistic question and instead look at realistic possibilities.

Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart: "The higher level of grand strategy [is] that of conducting war with a far-sighted regard to the state of the peace that will follow."

A close look at the desirable outcomes for Iraq and Syria (from a U.S. perspective) suggests that asking whether to put boots on the ground misses the reality on the ground entirely.  As Sir B. H. Liddell Hart stated, the object of war is to create a “better state of peace.”[1]  This better peace is a subjective phrase, however, and from the perspective of the United States it should be understood as the best possible peace for the interests of the United States.  To create such a peace, a number of things must happen. First and foremost, the threat of ISIS must be removed.  Second, less obviously, measures must be put in place that prevent another extremist proto-state from forming.  For the Middle East, this means that stability, in terms of security, must be established.  For the world, this means defeating ISIS in such a way that other extremists are dissuaded from similar ventures.  With those conditions in place, the U.S. will have found a better peace.

The current U.S. strategy is to assist ISF and moderate Syrian rebels to defeat ISIS by providing support in terms of precision strikes, intelligence, and advise and assist operations.[2]  More unilateral support consists of precision strikes to destroy key command and control nodes, “to include leadership, logistics areas, and financing mechanisms.”[3]  So far, this strategy has been responsible, inter alia, for reducing ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq by 40 percent and in Syria by about 10 percent.[4]  As the scope of analysis is widened outside the military, however, the foundation of the campaign begins to show weakness.  It strives for victory, but fails to consider a number of factors that could hinder the sort of victory that will provide a sustainable solution to the Middle East, and a better peace for the United States.

The issue of regional politics exemplifies the complex dilemmas that must be considered but currently stand outside the purview of a strategy that tends to emphasize the military element. William McCants puts forward an argument in his recent book, The ISIS Apocalypse, that “the disappearance of a jihadist statelet doesn’t mean the disappearance of the jihadists.  They will continue to wage insurgencies, taking advantage of the political instability and social unrest that gave rise to their statelets in the first place.”[5]  The United States created a coalition of regional partners to lead the fight against the Islamic State, providing a method by which influence over regional politics could be made possible.  A recent article by Michael Knights at War on The Rocks describes some of the ways this coalition failing to live up to its potential in this manner, stating, “Coalition military planners has have [sic] been told to avoid considering the broader regional impact and interconnections of the war.”[6]  This has resulted in a coalition of states focused more on “consolidating their control on the ground” and ultimately playing “a game of positioning for the truly decisive action that will begin as soon as the Islamic State is defeated.”[7]  The current strategy misses this sort of context, as does the question of ‘boots on the ground.’

Arguing over whether the U.S. should put ‘boots on the ground’ distracts policymakers from the wider range of options, some of which present viable solutions. A thorough plan has been laid out by the well known military theorist Huba Wass de Czege, also largely responsible for the objectives stated earlier.  This plan lays out four “lines of operation,” ranging from “the struggle for legitimacy” to creating an internationally legitimate judicial system with which to try the Islamic State’s leaders as criminals.[8]  It is thorough, and considers cultural, political, and even economic contexts in the fight against ISIS.

Another coherent plan has come out of the United Kingdom. This plan insists on cutting losses in terms of Russia’s influence and make a deal in which Assad remains in power but is removed through official process.  This will both allow Russia to keep some influence in the region and keep Assad from being punished.[9] All involved nations can then focus on the eradication of ISIS.  The plan has its flaws.  It would be nearly impossible to convince any of the moderate Syrian rebels to continue support for U.S. objectives following such a diplomatic shift, for example.  It also fails to encompass the actual fight against ISIS in such a way as to create a stable environment in the Middle East.  It is however, the sort of plan the U.S. should contemplate.

Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson (Tom Norde & Gage Skidmore)

Both plans stand in contrast to those presented by some current U.S. presidential candidates, with Hillary Clinton and Dr. Ben Carson taken as examples from either end of the political spectrum. Clinton presents a plan focused on a purely military context, suggesting the defeat of ISIS, the disruption and dismantlement of terrorist infrastructure, and hardening U.S. and allied defenses as three main elements.[10]  Carson, on the other hand, presents a plan that understands the defeat of ISIS does not necessarily mean victory, but he also tries to use the analogy of “the WWII war against Nazism or the long effort to contain and roll back communism” to describe actions against ISIS.[11]  Again, this misses subtle, yet important, elements of the fight against the Islamic State.

Instead of posing the ‘boots on the ground’ question and the military focus it embodies, the question should rather be, “How does the U.S. stabilize Iraq and Syria?” This more refined question shifts thought to the wider array of political, cultural, and economic contexts, and to the long-term implications of the various possible solutions to the threat that ISIS presents. By focusing instead on the politically-charged decision of whether to send in troops, the U.S. instead creates a conversation that is emotionally charged—by two, decade-long wars—and hampers future solutions by drawing implicit lines in the sand. 

Tyler Herr is an artillery officer in the U.S. Army, an aspiring strategist, and a scotch enthusiast. He received a BA in history at Gonzaga University. This article include the opinions of the author alone and do not reflect the official view of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government

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[1] Hart, B.H. Liddell. Strategy, Second Revised Edition. New York, NY: Fredrick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967.

[2] Cronk, Terri Moon. "Combined Factors Create Momentum Against ISIL, Centcom Spokesman Says." Defense.gov. U.S. Department of Defense, 21 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 Dec 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pellerin, Cheryl. "OIR Spokesman: ISIL Now in Defensive Crouch in Iraq, Syria." DoD News. U.S. Department of Defense, 6 Jan. 2016. Web. 1 Feb 2016.

[5] McCants, William F. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. N.p.: St. Martin's, 2015. Digital.

[6] Knights, Michael. "Time to Focus on the Wars Within the War Against the Islamic State." War on the Rocks. N.p., 21 Dec. 2015. Web. 1 Feb 2016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wass De Czege, Huba. "Defeating the Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi Gang: A Realistic Strategy." Small Wars Journal. N.p., 22 Dec 2015. Web. 1 Feb 2016.

[9] Roberts, David B. "The U.K. Decision on Syria: The Only Solution is a Political Solution." Defence in Depth. Defence Studies Department, King's College London, 3 Dec 2015. Web. 4 Dec 201

[10] Beckwith, Ryan T. "Transcript: Read Hillary Clinton's Speech on Fighting ISIS." Time online, 19 No. 2015. Web. 1 Feb 2016.

[11] Amble, John. "We Still Don't Know If Foreign Policy Matters in the Presidential Election." War on the Rocks. N.p., 28 Jan 2016. Web. 1 Feb 2016.