Even Containment Needs Boots on the Ground

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Even to keep ISIL at bay, U.S. or Iraqi forces would need to reclaim some cities – and that requires combat ground troops. By Jerry Meyerle

Editor’s Note: Everyone seems to be dancing around the “C” word these days: containment. Well, we at Defense One think it’s time for a blunt debate about that very concept. Here are four commentaries on why containment is (or is not) such a bad idea for ISIS, terrorism, or any foreign policy, for that matter, submitted by authors at the Center for a New American Security, CNA Corporation, Center for Strategic and International Studies and The Heritage Foundation.

The United States may need to deploy ground forces to Iraq and Syria just to contain the Islamic State and arrest its momentum, to say nothing of destroying the group. Air strikes have not halted its advance and are bound to yield diminishing returns. The longer the group controls important cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, the stronger it will become.

Supporters of containment have suggested that the organization’s influence can be limited to parts of Iraq and Syria. The argument goes that the population in these areas will eventually tire of the movement’s harsh brand of extremism and that its influence – and ability to sustain itself – will wither, even without air strikes or ground operations. 

But the Islamic State’s momentum came from its capture of important cities, towns and military bases in western Iraq. Control over important territory has earned it the respect of would-be recruits around the world who want to join what they see as the winning side in an escalating regional conflict. Insurgent and terrorist groups as far away as Pakistan, Algeria, Indonesia and Indian Kashmir – with virtually no connection to the conflict in Iraq and Syria – have jumped on the bandwagon by declaring their support for the Islamic State. Most worrisome, perhaps, is the reported flood of potential recruits from Europe – drawn not just by the cause, but the fact that the group appears to be making solid gains.

(Related: Should America Protect Itself Through Bridges or Barricades?)

ISIL’s continued control over large population centers has allowed the organization to grow in strength, stockpile weapons, recruit fighters from captive populations, win over populations through control over mosques and radio stations, raise funds, and safely organize and plan for operations elsewhere in Iraq and further afield. To contain the enemy, Iraqi forces will have to retake some key population centers currently under the Islamic State’s control. Reports from Fallujah suggest that insurgent fighters have been preparing to defend the city for some time now – by establishing defensive perimeters, for example, and laying rings of improvised explosive devices. This appears to be the case in other cities and towns as well.

When U.S. forces pulled out of Fallujah in the spring of 2004, insurgents turned the city into an armed camp and a base for operations elsewhere in the country. The U.S. Marines were eventually forced to retake Fallujah in one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war. U.S. and British forces had the same experience in southern Afghanistan when they allowed the town of Musa Qala to remain under Taliban control.   

U.S. defense leaders say repeatedly that air power is not enough to defeat ISIL. Air power can have only limited effects against an insurgency without capable combat forces on the ground, particularly where militants are entrenched in densely populated urban areas and hiding among civilians. This idea is widely accepted among experts on irregular warfare.

Air strikes may weaken the Islamic State in some areas and provide cover for Iraqi forces, particularly in open areas in the desert. But in large cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible for the United States or its allies to drop bombs on suspected insurgent positions given the high risk of civilian casualties. Air strikes that harm civilians could fragment the fragile coalition of Arab states supporting the air campaign and turn large sections of the Iraqi public against the United States. 

The task of retaking cities just to contain ISIL to northern Iraq and into Syria would fall to Iraqi forces on the ground, and it will likely involve hard fighting and heavy casualties. U.S. Marines had great difficulty retaking Fallujah in 2004. And on Friday, U.S. Central Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin said that the coalition is not nearly ready to make any attempt to reclaim Mosul, which he said would be the “decisive” battle against ISIL.  Such a task may be far beyond the capabilities of Iraq’s increasingly fragile army without U.S. forces on the ground in a combat role. 

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