The recent murders of James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff by ISIS militants, brazenly brandishing knives and videotaping these executions are not only horrifying, but also infuriating for millions of Americans. The moment I saw a terrorist standing confidently over James Foley, ready to end the man's life, I wanted retribution and immediately wished for the destruction of ISIS. Similar to the feelings aroused by 9/11, the killing of Americans by terrorists evokes a great deal of anger within me and many other citizens throughout the country. After 4,804 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq and 2,340 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan, one million U.S. soldiers wounded in both wars, and a potential cost of up to $6 trillion, the last thing Americans need to see is videos of fanatics executing civilians in Iraq.
However, unlike over a decade ago, before the roadside bombs and everything else our soldiers had to endure in Iraq, my hatred for ISIS is now tempered by certain costly and hard-learned lessons. Two counterinsurgency wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have caused immense hardship upon our Armed Forces, a suicide epidemic, a VA crisis, and countless number of night terrors, PTSD cases, and many other repercussions from fighting too long in foreign lands. While we have a population of over 310 million citizens, 2.5 million Americans protected the third most populous nation in the world. The least we owe these brave men and women is a strategy that doesn't end in further involvement within a known quagmire.
I've never served in the military, but I have the good sense to know that our soldiers deserve better than to relive the nightmares of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, Iraq is crumbling, but further involvement by America won't ensure its survival; only the Iraqi's themselves can ensure the viability of their state. To believe that we must reenter a war we just ended is similar to the gambler in Vegas who maxes out his ATM in order to play one more losing hand at poker.
The nature of war in Iraq today, and for most of the past decade, is the reality of irregular warfare where winning the battle entails occupying territory and dealing with ambushes, roadside bombs, snipers, and every other tactic aimed at weakening a great power. Our soldiers don't deserve another ground war in Iraq and we should never again wage a counterinsurgency war anywhere in the world. ISIS wants this suicidal showdown, they want to lure the U.S. into a ground war, and they need the legitimacy acquired by Al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden when both lured our country into two colossal mistakes in the Middle East.
Our society, sadly, is seemingly quick to forget the lessons learned only several years ago. Why? Because never-ending media images of militants with black beards and uniforms doing donuts in tanks and vehicles, relishing their victories and slaughtering groups of unarmed men, have garnered exactly the type of attention desired by ISIS. In order to defeat ISIS, we'll have to wage war on our terms; not the terms of a terrorist group who's raison detre, like Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and every other terror organization, is to weaken a far greaterer power though asymmetric warfare. There are a number of reasons why ISIS desperately wants the U.S. to send tens of thousands of ground troops back to Iraq and this article highlights why we shouldn't fall into their trap.
1. The U.S. should leave the ground war to Shia, Kurdish and other Iraqi forces. According to a Salon.com article in 2006, the Battle of Fallujah is an example of why Iraqis, not U.S troops, must vanquish ISIS:
During the battle for Fallujah, the military spent weeks warning civilians to leave the city -- and then gave Marines clear, deadly rules of engagement. "Our ROEs were kill anything that moves," said Crossan, who fought alongside Kaufman during the battle. "We went for 10 days of straight-on fighting. Most of it was at close quarters."
In places like Fallujah in 2004 and Haditha last year, American armed forces in Iraq face ambiguous situations that confound the rules of engagement and blur the distinction between ordinary Iraqis and the insurgents.
At Fallujah, Kaufman described how Marines had to make excruciating, split-second decisions about how to handle Iraqi civilians who would not leave their homes. "We would kick in doors and there would be a 90-year-old man standing there," Kaufman recounted. "He is saying, 'This is my house. I'm not leaving my house.'" In that frenzied situation, Kaufman realized that he could have shot the old man. But as he put it, "I just couldn't do it. You get to a point where you get tired of the killing."
Fallujah is just one of countless examples of how ISIS could lure American soldiers into deadly ambushes, sniper fire, and especially the morally ambiguous reality of differentiating between civilian and enemy. Providing Kurdish, Shia, and the Sunni forces that view ISIS as enemies with armament and aid will protect our ground troops from further Fallujah's, and further guerrilla warfare aimed at weakening our country.
2. The U.S. must remember what makes ISIS dangerous, as well as their advantages on the battlefield. ISIS can use tribal allegiances and fears against American soldiers, as well as create an atmosphere of further chaos, even after losing every military battle.
David Galula, the French Army Lieutenant Colonel who penned one of the quintessential works on war titled, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, explains the difference between conventional and counterinsurgency wars:
"All wars are cruel, the revolutionary war perhaps most of all because every citizen, whatever his wish, is or will be directly and actively involved in it by the insurgent who needs him and cannot afford to let him remain neutral. The cruelty of the revolutionary war is not a mass, anonymous cruelty but a highly personalized, individual one."
If ISIS lures America into another ground war, our soldiers will be faced with civilian allies during the day who fire at them at night, just like in previous Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Why? The answer lies in Galula's assessment of the war ISIS wants; a personalized conflict where civilians can be intimidated, factions can be exploited, and U.S. troops are caught in the middle of competing allegiances. We've already experienced this scenario only several years ago and to forget these lessons would be madness.
3. A ground war with the U.S. will boost terrorist recruitment from around the world, even if ISIS loses initial military battles. John Horgan, a psychologist at UMass-Lowell who specializes in terrorism, has explained how ISIS recruits:
People who join these groups are trying to find a path, to answer a call to something, which would basically mean that they're doing something meaningful with their lives. That is a common denominator across the board.
... in the eyes of potential recruits, this is fantasy made reality. It's everything that a would-be jihadist could have hoped for.
... Al Hayat, ISIS's media department, are nothing if not effective amateur psychologists. They're also adept marketers. These are great "Jihadi infomercials" -- they're presenting a limited-time offer, and encouraging potential recruits to act now.
The idea that ISIS could be defeated by U.S. ground troops ignores the fact that Al-Qaeda simply morphed into ISIS, once Al-Qaeda was defeated. Recruiting for any terror group relies on the perception that it is on the same playing field as great powers, and once the great power obliges, recruits from around the world will be attracted to the prospect of fighting and dying against America. It's happened before and it will happen again if we ignore the lessons of Iraq. Let's not forget also that we are still fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Airstrikes and funding the enemies of ISIS should be the primary ways the U.S. battles this terrorist organization. President Obama is indeed engaging in "mission creep" and the American people see ISIS everyday on television, so the possibility that citizens will simply sit back and watch our soldiers engage in another Iraq War is quite possible. If we fall into the trap set by ISIS, our country will have proven that its attention span is not only short, but also captivated by terrorist propaganda and lured into costly wars by terrorist strategies.