A war the military alone can’t win

Ashley Augsburger, a master’s student in my post-war reconstruction and transition class at SAIS, writes:

With the Administration’s submission to Congress of an Authorization for Use of Military Force against ISIS, debate is likely to continue regarding the nature, extent, and strategy of the conflict in Iraq and the region. Thursday’s panel discussion of these issues, “The Battle Against the Islamic State: Where Do We Go From Here?,” at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace featured Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily, Former Ambassador and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute James Jeffery, and Marwan Muasher, Vice President of Studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The discussion focused on Iraq’s challenges in facing ISIS, the larger public perception of ISIS in the region, actions that regional actors can take to address the larger ideological battle, and the necessary components of addressing the root causes of ISIS’s emergence and success over the past six months.

Faily addressed the question “where do we go from here” with an initial outline of the advances the Iraqi government has made in achieving a more inclusive and unified government, followed by three specific needs to create a more predictable and coherent policy to combat ISIS:

• Humanitarian concerns: With over 2.1 million displaced persons, primarily in the Kurdish region, affected communities need basic service provision and support.
• Military preparedness: The military requires appropriate training and equipment, complemented by allied forces intelligence sharing and technological support.
• Reconstruction assistance: Iraq is struggling with the “day after scenario” in liberated areas and needs to address governance and service provision for their populations.

While there must be a zero-tolerance policy toward ISIS in Iraq domestically, Faily said regional stability and the battle against ISIS also require a predictable and comprehensive policy towards Syria.

Jeffery focused on American involvement in the battle against ISIS and the challenges of defining a goal and appropriate methods moving forward. While uncomfortable, America has no choice but involve itself militarily in Iraq yet again. The challenge looking forward is to outline a strategy of engagement: “who will dig these guys out?” Jeffery asserted that a policy of containment is not sufficient, as ISIS is an extraordinary movement that is dangerous to the entire region.

Having just returned from six months in Amman, Muasher discussed the Jordanian perspective. He emphasized the broader context of the ISIS threat and the larger agenda needed to address underlying causes of ISIS’s emergence and appeal. While there is no public support for ISIS, many Jordanians are struggling with the question whether this is a war on their own values. While the murder of the Jordanian pilot has sparked demands for revenge, much like the US post 9/11, the larger commitment to a fundamental, values-based war is undecided. Regardless, regional stability is contingent upon a larger solution that includes a nonmilitary strategy alongside military engagements. Without addressing issues of economic opportunity and political inclusion, ISIS will not be defeated.

Questions and panel discussion focused primarily on how to combat the ideology behind ISIS and the extent to which the US should be involved. Jeffery emphasized the need for security first, but he was clear that an ideology will not be defeated militarily. Panelists agreed that it is the region’s responsibility to fight ISIS’s ideology. The United States should not wage an ideological war. Prompted with a question by Carnegie Fellow Jessica Matthews, Muasher highlighted the lack of “ground troops” to speak out against ISIS ideology, as so many of the governments fighting ISIS also suppress legitimate, liberal voices in their own countries.

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