A common argument holds that one cannot defeat ISIS because it is not merely a group of brutal terrorists, but also an idea. And, the argument goes, how can you kill an idea? Thus, former CIA operative Robert Baer warns that while "we're capable of militarily destroying ISIS and eliminating its leadership," "Sunni grievances will remain -- and there will always be another Sunni strongman to take up the cudgel," because "ISIS is a straight-line manifestation of an aggrieved religious sect." General David Barno of the Center for a New American Security states that the U.S. doesn't "fully appreciate the ideology" of ISIS, which "is much more of a long-term management and containment problem than 'let's find a way to defeat and destroy ISIS.'"
President Obama himself stated about ISIS that: "This broader challenge of countering extremism is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas." This challenge is so serious that President Obama confided in June that although we have been fighting ISIS for a year, "We don't yet have a complete strategy" and the U.S. is still "reviewing a range of plans" to bolster the Iraqi army.
This argument is combined with what is supposed to be the key lesson of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the U.S. faired so poorly: that the U.S. should not engage in any new land wars in Asia. For example, former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates stated in February 2011 that "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it," and Vice President Joe Biden argued in 2012 that, "The last thing America needs is to get in another ground war in the Middle East, requiring tens of thousands, if not well over 100,000 American forces."
I beg to differ. ISIS can be defeated, and quite readily. It set itself up as an easier target than other terrorist groups when it defined itself as seeking to found a state, governed in line with its particular interpretation of Islam, and as the cornerstone of a worldwide Muslim commonwealth, a caliphate. Hence -- unlike other such groups -- which when under attack can give up territory readily and disappear into the civilian population, only to reemerge and attack -- ISIS requires holding a territory. This is of course exactly what they have been doing. If the U.S. and its allies recapture the land ISIS now holds in Iraq and Syria, it will be considered defeated. True, people who call themselves ISIS, including some remaining members, may still engage in isolated acts of terrorism in Iraq and Syria, and people wearing black headbands, the earmark of ISIS members, may carry out sporadic attacks in other countries. However, none of these would provide the special appeal ISIS has to young people who see it as providing the end of centuries of humiliation by restoring the high point of Muslim history and glory and power. Without an inchoate caliphate, ISIS becomes another bunch of terrorists roaming in the area, competing with several others.
Should the U.S. truly take on this mission, it will be helped by several favorable factors: (a) No moral ambiguity. Defeating ISIS meets the strictest standards of any just war theory. Its beheading of civilians; frying, burying, and crucifying people alive; using children to fight; and turning girls into sex slaves, has engendered an unusually worldwide shared moral understanding that they ought to be vanquished. (b) No safe haven. Groups like ISIS benefit when there is a nearby country that acts as a safe haven, where they can train, equip, retreat, etc. -- what Pakistan is for the Afghan Taliban. There are those who said that Syria served as a safe haven for ISIS operations in Iraq. But this was before the U.S. and its allies decided in effect to ignore the border. ISIS has no safe haven. (c) No patrons. In a most unusual convergence both Sunni and Shia nations, all of them, not only oppose ISIS but are actively seeking its demise, as do other terrorist groups. (d) Conventional warfare. ISIS' need to hold land makes it much more vulnerable to the methods, training, and equipment of the U.S. military, which prefers fighting regular forces in the open to fighting terrorists in the shadows. Moreover, ISIS is not a formidable conventional army, having only 40,000 to 50,000 troops, no air force, and no navy. While the arrival of foreign fighters has allowed ISIS to replace its losses, such diversity hinders one in the battlefield. In 1948, I commanded a small platoon of Israeli commandos in the mountains of Judea. As our lines thinned out due to casualties, the new recruits were Jews who immigrated to Israel from a variety of countries. None of them understood the language of command, and all spoke different languages and heeded different cultural habits. Getting them to fight together made herding cats seem easy. This is the situation now for ISIS with its zillions of inexperienced foreign fighters, who are often considered a great asset but actually are hardly so. (True some of the fight against ISIS will be urban warfare with the danger of many civilian casualties. Here the U.S. should insist that Arab nations provide troops to take the lead in these parts while the U.S. commits its land forces to drive ISIS forces out of the parts they captured). (e) Need land for income. Terrorist groups that rely on checks from rich Saudis or shopping bags full of cash for their finances can function without territory. ISIS's major source of income, including oil and taxation, are derived from the territories it holds. If these lands are lost, so will be much of this income.
Finally, the idea that the U.S. cannot defeat ISIS because of its losses in Afghanistan and Iraq is based on a gross misunderstanding. In both nations, American military victories were swift and came at low human and economic costs. Only $56 billion had been appropriated for the Iraq War by the time President George W. Bush declared 'Mission Accomplished' in May 2003, and 172 coalition servicemen had died. Only 12 U.S. soldiers died during the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the fighting was largely carried out by locals of the Northern Alliance. Most of the casualties, and the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, came after those victories, as the US attempted to build stable, liberal democracies despite the fact that the sociological conditions for democratization were not in place and could not be imported. In short, future military interventions, including the deployment of American troops, should not be seen as taboo; however, they should not be coupled with a sure-to-fail democratization mission. The U.S. has little hope of democratizing Syria, but to argue that any military intervention will inevitably lead to mission creep falsely assumes that the U.S. is incapable of learning from the long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Exit should take the following form: Parts of Iraq liberated from ISIS should be turned over to the Kurds and Sunni national guard units while the national Iraqi army, which is Shia dominated and sure to abuse Sunnis, should be assigned to hold the border with Syria but not to control the newly liberated areas. Shiite militias that drive ISIS out of Sunni or Kurdish areas should then be withdrawn from these parts in order to avoid sectarian conflict. The U.S. should turn parts of Syria over to the Kurds as long as they are willing to reassure Turkey that they will not use their increased presence to pull parts of Turkey into the orbit of a nascent Kurdish state. Beyond that, the U.S. should disengage once ISIS lands are recaptured and let the various Syrian groups duke it out. There is no one there to build a stable democracy with. Back at home, it is time for a victory lap.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First and Hot Spots. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org