Being Smart Beats Talking Tough

Some critics of Hillary Clinton are foaming at the mouth over her pledge not to deploy conventional ground troops to solve the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Her campaign has made clear that she was not calling for the withdrawal of the non-combat forces in both countries. As Clinton noted at the Commander-in-Chief forum, these forces are helping to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and supporting our partner forces. Instead, Clinton was advocating against another ground war. Yet that seems to be precisely what some of her critics want. Marc Thiessen typified this point of view when he pined for the types of military interventions that characterized George W. Bush’s first term and suggested that anything less would embolden ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their ilk. Donald Trump, who loves talking tough, but has offered only vague and conflicting policies to combat ISIS, wasted little time promoting this criticism on his campaign website.

As someone who has spent almost a decade studying jihadist groups I’m all for well-informed debates over how to best use our military to combat groups like ISIS and whether it makes sense to rule out deploying conventional forces. Unfortunately, the line of criticism that the United States must deploy these forces in order to “show strength” lest terrorists become more “emboldened” to attack us mischaracterizes the current states of affairs in Iraq and Syria, exhibits an overly rosy sense of history, and illustrates a poor grasp of the current terrorist threat and the many tools needed to address it.

The United States is already contributing more troops than any other country in the anti-ISIS coalition. The fact that these forces are not engaged in combat does not mean that they are not playing a vital role in combating terrorists. Furthermore, air power has its limits, especially in terms of addressing the conditions that enable jihadists to flourish. But airstrikes from manned and unmanned aircraft have played a crucial role in supporting partners on the ground who have retaken almost half of ISIS-held territory. They have also been used to withering effect to degrade ISIS and target its financial stores.

As ISIS has lost territory, its affiliates and international networks have become more important. It is difficult to see how sending conventional ground forces en masse into Iraq or Syria would reduce the threats coming from place like Libya, Yemen, or the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

What’s really needed to counter these threats is greater international coordination. That includes more intelligence cooperation to eliminate key nodes in these networks, deal with threats from returning foreign fighters, and target terrorist financing. Additional focus is also needed on promoting security sector reform in partner nations and on equipping their security services with the tools to execute intelligence-led operations to arrest or eliminate jihadists. Presidents Bush and Obama understood this. Hillary Clinton does too judging by her calls for focusing more on the global terrorist infrastructure that enables attacks and an intelligence surge to help disrupt and dismantle global jihadist networks.

The military has a role to play, but it is mainly by special operations forces continuing to advise and assist partner nations and executing targeted direct action operations. It was President Bush who began relying more heavily on air power in the form of drone strikes during his second term as a way to work around partners unwilling or unable to take the fight to the enemy. President Obama built on this practice. These strikes have eliminated high-value targets and sown disarray in al-Qaeda and ISIS. In documents recovered during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, al-Qaeda members bemoan the immense toll drone strikes took on their organization.

Finally, the main threat to the homeland comes from the radicalization of individuals already living here. Deploying a large number of U.S. troops in a Muslim country would almost invariably inspire more homegrown terrorism. Bush and Obama recognized the need to work with local Muslim communities to counter radicalization. That’s something Hillary Clinton also understands and judging by his incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric Donald Trump does not.

This is a long game. Jihadist terrorism will not end even if ISIS is pushed back or more of its leaders are killed. History has shown that major troop deployments are neither sustainable nor effective when it comes to fighting jihadist groups. There are many things to be frustrated about in this election season, but for long-time observers of the Middle East and counter-terrorism, it is especially dispiriting to see discredited arguments trotted out to score political points. As we debate whether and when our next Commander-in-Chief should send troops into harm’s way, let’s dispense with the tough-sounding rhetoric and focus on how to actually keep Americans safe.