Battling the Hydra: The Growing War Against Islamic State


Coalition airstrike on Islamic State position in Kobane in October, 2014 – Voice of America photo

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford Jr. announced that the United States and its allies have increased intelligence gathering in Libya in preparation for a possible expansion of the war against Islamic State (IS). A decision is expected to come within “weeks.”

Fifteen months ago I began this blog partly as a reaction to a comment by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about IS: “I think we’re looking at a kind of 30-year war.” Then I was worried about inevitable mission creep in Iraq and the concept of a forever war in general.

Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return.

Since that post the operation against Islamic State was at least named. Indeed, it did take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a level where they could begin a successful ground operation against IS — Ramadi was retaken last month. There are more optimistic signs as well: IS was recently forced to cut its fighters’ salaries in response to financial troubles likely including oil prices and the US-led coalition bombing campaign on its oil infrastructure. As the Taliban has been finding out with IS in Afghanistan, fighters will often go to whomever pays the most.

But the war against IS is not racing to a speedy conclusion by any means. Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return. The world was shocked at IS’s reach last November during the Paris attacks. Though some (including this author) were skeptical that those attacks were from IS command and control, IS has released video evidence of the attackers planning the attacks while in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Europol expects more attacks in the future.

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Paris attackers from Dabiq, Islamic State’s e-zine

In Syria, IS launched an offensive in Deir el-Zour, capturing an army base, weapons depots, and killing at least 300 people. If they succeed in capturing all of Deir el-Zour, they will control two provincial capitals in Syria (the other being the IS capital, Raqqa) — a major blow for Assad (and Russia’s) Syrian Arab Army.

With a likely expansion of the war against IS into Libya, Panetta’s 30-year prediction is looking better. One year down, IS does not seem too much more degraded or destroyed than a year ago. And though Obama said then that the war against IS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” there has since been a Delta Force soldier killed combat in against IS.

As we enter the final year of Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric from the likely candidates on both sides foretells an increased operations tempo — both Hillary Clinton and her opponents have been falling over themselves to explain how they would win the war against IS — from Ted Cruz’s “carpet bombing” to Donald Trump’s “kill terrorists’ families” to Clinton’s “intensification,” it does not appear that this war will end any time soon.

“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war”


Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta – Wikipedia Commons Photo

Today, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that the fight against the Islamic State could take decades. This is hardly an unreasonable assertion considering our war against al-Qaida is now thirteen years old. (I was sixteen on September 11th and am now twenty-nine. There are high schoolers alive today who have no memory of a United States at peace.) New, yet to be named operations in Iraq and Syria do not show signs of a speedy resolution. After all, it might take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a readiness level suitable to start a ground campaign against IS. (I expect that estimate is optimistic—coalition forces trained the ISF for at least seven years, but it did not prevent the ISF from collapsing against IS earlier this year.)

Panetta goes on to blame President Obama for not forcing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government in 2011 to accept a new Status of Forces Agreement with diplomatic immunity for US forces. In his view, the absence of this hypothetical SOFA and continued troop presence created a security vacuum and thus IS—a position shared by Senator John McCain and the GOP as well. This sort of cognitive dissonance concerning the recent origins of unrest in the “Greater Middle East” aside, there are a few troubling points within his statements.

1. We are fast approaching the longest war in US history—one that spans continents and has no end in sight. In just seven years we will be fighting AQ and its associates/separatists for as long as we were fighting communists in Vietnam (“advisor years” included). As the Vietnam War could be considered the US’s most embarrassing foreign policy blunder (or more accurately string of blunders), why is our Department of Defense not a learning institution?

2. Panetta complained that Obama “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” How do we live in a world where a leader in the US government’s highest offices (Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, etc.) can claim that logic is a lesser trait than passion? It continues to astonish me that we allow our elected and appointed leaders to make these sophomoric emotional statements.

3. To what end do we accept that this war will take decades? After IS is degraded and destroyed—then what? Shall we keep US forces in the Middle East indefinitely, fighting the next armed group who opposes imperialism? Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war to prevent this scenario. It is not within the American people’s strategic interests to remain there. The question should not be, “What is the most recent action by a US administration that led to the strengthening of IS,” the question should be, “How did we end up here in the first place,” and, “How do we avoid doing it again?”

I admit I do not have the answers to these questions. But the US has a long history of addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of its problems. This part of Obama’s address to the American people about this still unnamed operation in Iraq and Syria is telling:

“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. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. 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.”

If Yemen and Somalia are our measure of success, I am positive we will continue to be successful in Iraq and Syria.