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Why McCain is wrong about sending ground troops to fight ISIS

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is quoted this January calling for American ground troops to fight ISIS. According to the Vietnam War hero and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, “The reality is, we need more boots on the ground… we need intelligence, we need special forces, and we can’t treat Iraq and Syria as different battlegrounds because it’s the same enemy.”

He goes on to say that “For months we’ve been bombing (Syrian border town) Kobane and we still haven’t driven ISIS out,” and as a result, the U.S. should increase its military presence in the region. While we’ve just ended two costly war, many Americans actually agree with Sen. McCain. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans and 61 percent of Republicans favor sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS.

{mosads}However, with all due respect to McCain, he’s wrong about sending more Americans into yet another counterinsurgency conflict. While ISIS might be no match for U.S. ground troops in a conventional battle, the lessons of both Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that simply winning military engagements won’t guarantee an end to the chaos and bloodshed in the region. Counterinsurgency wars aren’t pitched battles and according to Daniel Bolger in his book titled Why We Lost, “This enemy wasn’t amenable to the type of war we’re good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo.”

In his book, General Bolger goes on to state some of the other reasons why we failed to achieve many of our objectives in Iraq:

We then added to our troubles by misusing the U.S. Armed Forces, which are designed, manned, and equipped for short, decisive, conventional conflict. Instead, certain of our tremendously able, disciplined troops, buoyed by dazzling early victories, we backed into not one but two long, indecisive counterinsurgent struggles ill suited to the nature of our forces.

Now, Sen. McCain is calling for more American to be sent to fight ISIS, even though a decade of the Iraq War should have already provided Iraqis with a stable enough government to protect their own country.

Like all counterinsurgency conflicts, especially the one General Bolger writes about, victory lies just as much in a lasting political solution as it does in winning military battles. With ISIS, the U.S. still faces the same Sunni and Shia rivalry that tore apart Iraq. According to Brookings, ISIS is fueled by the sectarian conflict:

This central facet of IS’s military strategy aims to spark or sustain sectarian conflict— to “provoke [the Shia] to radicalize, join Iranian-sponsored militias and commit similar atrocities against Sunnis.” With both the Shia-led government in Iraq and the Alawi-led one in Syria perceived as repressive by many ordinary Sunnis, IS aims to present itself as the protector of true and pure Sunni ideals.

Thus, without a solution to the sectarian violence and animosity between Sunni and Shia in Iraq, no amount of U.S. ground troops will be able to implement a lasting peace. According to the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, both Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai utilized U.S. support to further their own political goals rather than ensure American interests.

Who in the Iraqi government does McCain believe will help us alleviate sectarian tensions and Sunni vs. Shia bloodshed in the region?

As for sending soldiers to train rebels or Iraqi forces, Adm. John Kirby is quoted as saying that when we left Iraq in 2011, Iraqis already had the necessary tools to protect themselves:

And when we left in 2011, we left them capable and competent to the threat that they faced. That opportunity they were given, the skills that they were provided, the leadership that they had were squandered by the Maliki government over the last three, three and a half years.

So, if we already spent a decade training, fighting, and dying for an Iraq capable of defending itself from a foe like ISIS, what makes McCain think that following the same strategy will work in 2015?

It speaks volumes that according to USA Today, more than 3,100 Americans have died and over 33,000 have been wounded from IED blasts in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. This accounts for more than half to two-thirds of Americans killed or wounded in combat from both wars. In Iraq, 4,489 U.S. soldiers have died and 2,356 soldiers have died in Afghanistan. In all, close to one million Americans have been injured in both wars, and hundreds of thousands deal with the repercussions of battle on a daily basis. The end result, sadly, has been military victories that were either squandered by the Iraqi government’s incompetence or devastating sectarian bloodshed.

With former GOP Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) blocking a recent veterans suicide prevention bill, and only months from a VA scandal that rocked the nation, it’s a pity that members of Congress are actually contemplating sending American soldiers back to further counterinsurgency wars and sectarian quagmires in Iraq. 

Goodman is an author and journalist who studied International Relations at USC.  

Tags John McCain Tom Coburn

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