For U.S., Many Options but No Clear Path in Middle East


Mar 6, 2017

Counterterrorism service troops advance towards Ghozlani military complex, south of Mosul, Iraq, February 23, 2017

Counterterrorism service troops advance towards Ghozlani military complex, south of Mosul, Iraq, February 23, 2017

Photo by Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on March 4, 2017.

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump said he would bomb the oil fields controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). After the bombing, he would send in U.S. troops to protect the oil fields against their recapture. But then he said, “I would love not to be over there. ... That's not our fight.”

These comments reflect the mixed feelings of many Americans who would applaud escalating the fight against the terrorists but, at the same time, would prefer that the U.S. get out of these conflicts altogether.

These seemingly contradictory impulses convey a singular thought: One way or another, Americans want the fight over and done with.

For the past 30 years, the Middle East has been the theater of most American military engagements — a timeline that covers the bombing of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli, the first Gulf War, the missile attacks on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the renewal of American military operations in Iraq and the recent bombing of the ISIS command center in Syria.

In the eyes of many Americans, involvement in the region's seemingly endless quarrels has brought the country nothing but grief.

President Trump inherited the current wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan from President Obama, who inherited them from President George W. Bush. Decisions will soon need to be made that will give the new administration ownership of the ongoing campaigns.

The violence in Afghanistan has intensified, and the commander of American forces there says he needs more troops. With U.S. combat support, Iraqi forces, Kurdish fighters and Shiite militias may in the coming months recapture Mosul in Iraq, but the U.S. commander of the campaign against ISIS recommends against withdrawal at that time. How Trump responds will set policy.

The fall of ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria will not end the war.

Four (or eight) years from now, Trump may in turn pass these military campaigns on to his successor. The fall of ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria will not end the war. ISIS will go underground and continue the fight through insurgencies and terrorism. The Taliban has not left the battlefield. And there are still ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates spread across Africa, the Middle East and western Asia.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 14, three authorities on terrorism variously spoke of the struggle going on for anywhere from another 15 to 40 years — another two generations.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is likely preparing options for Trump to escalate the fight against ISIS. Although a review of U.S. actions is appropriate, it is not likely to find a solution that has thus far eluded the government. There are no easy options.

Some suggest attacking the root causes driving the terrorist campaigns while reducing the ungoverned spaces where terrorists find sanctuary. This would require addressing chronic grievances, resolving ongoing conflicts, creating stability, ensuring better governance (if not democracy), and providing the security that will permit social and economic development. All of these are difficult to accomplish, and the United States is at the margin of its influence. They would require major investments and take many years to achieve.

Meanwhile, the terrorist threat will continue.

Negotiations, even with terrorists, should never be off the table. Conceivably, deals with more-pragmatic Taliban factions might be possible. Negotiations with al Qaeda or ISIS leaders, who see the conflict as a life-and-death struggle mandated by God, are hard to envision, although some lower-level commanders might be persuaded to cut a deal. And not all of the groups allied with al Qaeda or ISIS may share their partner's determination to fight to the death.

It may be more realistic to think in terms of interim arrangements aimed at lowering the level of violence rather than war-ending agreements.

It may be more realistic to think in terms of interim arrangements aimed merely at lowering the level of violence: seeking local accommodations rather than war-ending agreements.

Can the timeline be shortened and the jihadists defeated more quickly through escalation?

The Pentagon no doubt can offer a detailed list of options. Suggestions may begin with reinforcing the 6,000 or 7,000 U.S. service personnel currently working with the Iraqi army and irregular forces in Syria to increase their effectiveness. Without personnel on the ground to target and coordinate operations, airpower is largely ineffective over the long run. This would be a useful step, but not a quick solution.

Some have argued for relaxing the rules of engagement to allow a less-constrained use of airpower. But targets are limited, and bombing errors can lead to backlash and erode international cooperation in the fight against terrorism, a post-9/11 success story that provides vital intelligence.

Others have argued for American combat forces to be redeployed. Putting American boots on the ground raises questions of what exactly they would do and how the move would affect the war. More troops might more quickly capture Raqqa, Syria, but then what?

Deploying American troops also runs the risk of changing the dynamics of the contest while fueling the jihadist narrative and assisting terrorist recruiting. Sending in combat troops might be a popular course of action, especially in the immediate wake of a major terrorist incident in the United States, but whatever initial domestic political support exists for using American ground forces could quickly evaporate.

Partnering with the Russians to destroy ISIS also has been mentioned as a strategy, but it comes with high political cost and offers the U.S. little military benefit. America has enough airplanes and know-how to bomb targets, but associating the U.S. with the kind of ruthless military operations Russia conducted in Syria would cause deep concern in the American military, repel allies and could undercut U.S counterterrorist efforts.

Many U.S. military successes have been achieved by working with allies, including local governments and irregular forces. This was the case in Afghanistan in 2001, with the Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar Province in 2006 and, most notably, with the Kurds in the current conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Early U.S. attempts to field carefully vetted, U.S.-trained rebel formations in Syria achieved less success. Those failures merit more analysis and suggest that it is not enough to train guerrillas and drop them onto the battlefield. Their reliability and effectiveness depend on continued engagement — having Americans with them — and direct combat support.

The United States also may be able to do more with state partners in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia recently formed an alliance of Muslim states to fight Islamic extremists. The initiative, however, was not embraced in Washington.

Many Americans are uncomfortable with the Saudis. Some see Saudi financial support for the spread of the intolerant ideology of Wahhabist Islam as a major source of jihadist radicalization worldwide, while others are critical of Saudi Arabia's record on human rights. Some in the Obama administration saw a close relationship with Saudi Arabia as an obstacle to what they hoped would presage a more friendly relationship with Iran — a relationship that has yet to happen.

These objections notwithstanding — that few allies will meet our strict standards — pursuing local alliances makes sense. Politically, local forces are more effective than American combat units. They also have certain operational advantages. And they don't always have to be crack combat units — in some cases, they need only to out-recruit their opponents.

Finally, the U.S. could consider the idea of creating an international force, locally recruited but trained, paid and led by experienced military commanders from the region and beyond. This option may be the only one available for areas where no government or government forces exist.

Should the United States then avoid the costs and tribulations of further military involvement by withdrawing from the region, leaving local belligerents to sort things out by themselves?

Doing so seemingly would get the United States out of a costly mess and enable the country to focus on rebuilding its own economy, which is far more important to U.S. long-term strategic goals. It would also enable the armed forces to rebuild to meet threats that endanger the republic more than errant jihadists, which law enforcement has mostly contained.

This course of action has great appeal, but few have defined precisely what “getting out” means. Withdrawing all American forces from Afghanistan? Ending military support for Iraq's forces? Halting the bombing in Syria? Ending American support for the Kurds and allied Arab formations? Would the United States continue drone strikes and special operations as part of its counterterrorist campaign? Should the United States continue to support the Saudi-led fight in Yemen? Should it continue to provide training and other forms of military assistance to willing allies in the region?

Withdrawal also comes with risks. The United States has achieved what seemed to be a measure of success on several occasions — in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Yemen — only to see things fall apart when it pulled out or turned its attention to other fronts.

Many in the United States would say it's not our fight: What are the downsides of withdrawal to the United States?

What are the downsides of withdrawal to the United States?

Well, a U.S. withdrawal could result in further destabilization of surrounding countries. It would leave ungoverned spaces not unlike those in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, which allowed al Qaeda to flourish. The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2011 is sometimes cited as a contributing factor to the rise of ISIS. American withdrawal would alter political calculations in Iraq, and it would leave Iran in a commanding position in the region. It could prompt further and more significant military action against the Kurds by Turkey.

Withdrawal would be perceived as another demonstration that the United States is an unreliable ally, which could have strategic implications beyond the Middle East, in places like Europe and East Asia, where there already are concerns about American commitment to its allies.

But the principal reason for U.S. military involvement in these conflicts is that it is seen as necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland. Would withdrawal reduce or increase that risk?

Al Qaeda's original objective was to drive the United States — the “far enemy” — out of the Middle East, although some analysts argue that the purpose of the 9/11 attacks was exactly the opposite, to draw the United States into the fight. How would al Qaeda react now to American withdrawal?

Although it encourages homegrown terrorist attacks, ISIS thus far has not followed al Qaeda's earlier pattern of launching large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States, although both groups continue to call on homegrown terrorists to carry out attacks in the U.S. If the United States were to withdraw, would ISIS see launching attacks on the U.S. as being in its strategic interest?

Would any administration that ordered a withdrawal be able to politically withstand a subsequent terrorist attack? And if one were to occur, what options would the United States then have?

Whether and how the United States ends, or substantially reduces, its military role remains unexplored territory. Yet Americans are reluctant to accept that this is an open-ended contest. U.S. officials need to devote as much strategic thinking about how this war might end as they have (or have not) devoted to participating in it.

The struggle against jihadist terrorism has been a long fight, and it has a long way to go. There are no shortcuts. When the United States thinks there are no costs attached to a strategy, it creates trouble. All options come with risks.

However, the various courses of action are not mutually exclusive. The United States may increase its military efforts in one place while at the same time seeking to lower the level of violence in another. Choices in every case, however, require that the nation reexamine its national interests and clarify its objectives.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an author of numerous books, reports and articles on terrorism-related topics.

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