Defeating Islamic State is not as simple as GOP candidates say
By JIM MICHAELS | USA Today | Published: March 30, 2016
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Donald Trump vows to “knock the hell out of” the Islamic State and has talked about bringing back waterboarding. His chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz, promises to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State until the sand glows.
Carpet bombing and torture may not be realistic solutions, but military experts say there are ways to increase the pressure on the terrorist group short of committing to a large, open-ended deployment of American troops, something all candidates — as well as President Obama — say they want to avoid.
The most common recommendations are to increase the bombing campaign against the militants, deploy U.S. advisers with Iraqi combat troops and support a ground force from Middle East countries willing to battle the Islamic State in Syria.
Critics say the administration has placed too many restrictions on the military. “The administration approach is to do the minimal amount, just to be able to say they’ve done something,” said David Deptula, a retired Air Force three-star general. He has advocated a more intensive bombing campaign by a U.S.-led coalition.
The White House defends its strategy, claiming that coalition-supported Iraqi forces have retaken 40% of the territory held by the Islamic State, which spread from Syria to Iraq in 2014. The Pentagon also said it has decimated the terrorist group’s top leadership.
Among the public, however, there is a growing sense that the president's strategy isn't working. According to a December Quinnipiac poll, 57% of those surveyed believed the United States is losing the fight against the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.
Fighting terrorism has emerged as one of the top issues on the minds of voters even before last week's attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people. "ISIS changed the equation,” said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.
But the response from presidential candidates has often only obscured the debate. The U.S. Air Force doesn’t carpet bomb, as Cruz proposes, since its munitions can be very precise. Waterboarding, as Trump has called for, is generally considered torture and is no longer allowed under U.S. policy.
Candidates have occasionally let themselves get pinned down on specifics. During one debate, Trump recommended a force of between 20,000 to 30,000 troops to battle the Islamic State, but he has also warned against getting bogged down in a long war and criticized the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Analysts said the debate has done little to help the public understand the best path to defeat the Islamic State.
"You can't conduct effective defense policy in seven- to 10-second sound bites," Deptula said.
Critics of the Obama strategy focus on what they consider harmful restraints placed on the military.
They say the administration's desire to avoid civilian casualties has led to limits on what can be targeted, reducing the effectiveness of airstrikes. Placing U.S. teams with Iraqi or Syrian combat troops would increase risks for American troops but could result in more effective strikes.
U.S. trainers and advisers in Iraq are generally not on the battlefield and the White House has resisted calls for placing American teams alongside Iraqi combat units where they can call in airstrikes that better target the enemy, but also would be more vulnerable to injury.
The administration has capped the level of U.S. forces in Iraq at 3,870 troops. Several dozen U.S. advisers are working with Syrian opposition forces, also far from the battlefield.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz, said the rules of engagement for the air campaign are “overly restrictive” and the United States should commit about 10,000 troops to support an international coalition to fight the Islamic State.
The United States has conducted robust air campaigns in the past — including in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001 — that minimized civilian casualties but broke the will of the enemy.
Many strategists agree with the administration that a large commitment of U.S. troops would be counterproductive, leading to a lengthy ground war.
That is the rationale of the administration's policy, driven by its fear of getting sucked into another Middle East ground war on the scale of the Iraq invasion, which toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein but drew the U.S. military into a lengthy insurgency.
"When I hear somebody saying we should carpet-bomb Iraq or Syria, not only is that inhumane, not only is that contrary to our values, but that would likely be an extraordinary mechanism for ISIL to recruit more people willing to die and explode bombs in an airport or in a metro station,” Obama said. “That's not a smart strategy.”
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