With more than 1,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, surveillance flights over Syria, and over 100 airstrikes launched in Iraq, it is time to start asking the hard questions about the latest U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. As David Petraeus so famously asked a decade ago, 'Tell me how this ends.'
However one felt about the humanitarian intervention to save the Yazidis stranded on Mt. Sinjar (and we can all be happy so many were safely evacuated), the U.S. military intervention in Iraq -- and potentially soon in Syria -- has become something completely different. As has so often been the case in conflict, the mission has crept its way from a noble humanitarian goal towards something far more complicated.
We are becoming deeply involved in a sectarian conflict that spans from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, with multiple fronts, multiple actors, shifting alliances, and horrific violence on all sides. In short, we're in the middle of a giant mess.
We should take a minute and acknowledge something. ISIS (or ISIL or Islamic State depending on who you ask) is a collection of some of the most despicable beings to walk the earth. They have reportedly executed religious minorities (and an American journalist), forced women into slavery, and are committing atrocities faster than anyone can monitor them. Being opposed to a broadening U.S. military intervention does not mean you have to think that ISIS is somehow not evil. They are. The question is what you do about that and how you can avoid making them stronger.
Cooperating with Assad to unilaterally strike ISIS in Syria makes zero sense and would likely exacerbate the regional crisis. It is true that the border between Syria and Iraq has, in some ways, become irrelevant. However, the fact that we could soon be bombing a country that, one year ago, the American public overwhelmingly rejected bombing, should be a stark reminder of how much has changed. Even more absurd is that, exactly one year after Assad gassed his own people, our potential military action would be to target his chief rivals in a now three-year-old civil war that has claimed 191,000 lives. The icing on this illogical cake is that the ISIS spokesman who threatened to 'raise the flag of Allah in the White House' is reportedly dead at the hands of Assad's forces. As a reminder, it remains official U.S. policy that Assad must leave power and we will spend $500 million in FY2015 arming Syrian opposition forces.
The truth is that ISIS feeds off of war. They need it to survive. It's at the core of their identity and they are very good at provoking a fight. They are purposefully inciting sectarian fights in Iraq in the hopes of rallying Sunnis around them. They want nothing more than for the U.S. to get involved so that it's not just apostates and infidels they are fighting, but the Great Satan itself. Bringing the fight to them and taking sides in Iraq's sectarian conflict and Syria's civil war is exactly what ISIS wants.
Some argue that, because we cannot negotiate with ISIS, the only way to defeat them is through unilateral military action. Here's where we have to learn from history. Our efforts in Yemen and the tribal regions of Pakistan offer a useful preview of how this will go, and the future does not look bright. Years of airstrikes, with local forces fighting proxy ground battles for us, has led to increasing extremism and a growth in the Taliban (both Pakistani and Afghan) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nowhere where we have gone down this path has it ended with peace or fewer extremists. Even worse, unilateral airstrikes have ended disastrously for the inhabitants of those places. Life in Iraq and Syria right now is truly awful, and we should do everything we can to ease the humanitarian crisis. But history has shown us that a stepped-up counterterrorism in isolation effort will have the opposite effect: empowering terrorist organizations and causing collateral damage. We've seen this movie before and we know how it ends.
This is not about whether or not we trust President Obama or his intentions. Once a president starts down the road of military intervention, mission creep is almost always inevitable. We now have roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in Iraq with requests for more to deploy. The Iraqis have asked us to ramp up our fighting and it is unclear what promises we have made as carrots for their ousting of former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. What started as a humanitarian mission to save Yazidis on a mountain has grown to over 100 airstrikes, the majority of which have been in support of an Iraqi and Kurdish military mission to recapture the Mosul Dam. Following the execution of an American journalist, the promise of a second execution, and the personalization of this fight to the president, it is becoming next to impossible for Obama to 'back down.' The Pentagon has reportedly been so pleased by their airstrikes that they've asked for the ability to ramp them up. Add to this the very real likelihood that American bombs will soon fall into the middle of the Syrian civil war, and it becomes clear that this train has left the station.
But it is not too late to change direction. Countless experts and scholars have watched America's misadventures in the Middle East over the past several decades and learned the painful lesson so few in Washington can seem to grasp: American bombs do not solve the problem. While the impulse to 'do something' remains compelling, we must continue to seek out solutions that will actually solve the challenges we face and not simply plunge America and the Middle East further into war.