To defeat ISIS, Trump needs more than the Pentagon can deliver
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President Trump has given the Department of Defense 30 days to produce a strategy to defeat ISIS and has reportedly rubbished an Obama plan to capture ISIS’s capital, Raqqa.

The Pentagon probably will offer the standard high, medium, and low troop options. Other agencies will then figure out how to support the one chosen. This process, plus failure to set priorities and put someone in charge, creates bureaucratic silos that undermine chances of success.


To find the right strategy, Trump needs broader alternatives than the Pentagon can deliver on its own.


A favorable and durable outcome in Iraq and Syria may or may not come from the barrel of a gun. Without addressing the major problems in governance and regional competition, the Institute for the Study of War has warned, the defeat of ISIS may result in a different insurgency.

Both governments have been predatory toward Sunni Arabs — a key reason for the rise of ISIS in the first place. As the group contracts in Syria, more and more militants are consolidating under the banner of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an al Qaeda-aligned group. Across the border, Iraqi Security Forces have taken the eastern half of Mosul, but may face an even tougher fight for the western part. The use of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization forces could inflame further resentment.

The likelihood that either the Iraqi or Syrian governments will win back legitimacy in Sunni Arab regions seems remote. Russia and Turkey have reportedly recognized this reality and called for “informal zones of regional power.”

Post-ISIS diplomacy will be complicated.

Iran, supporting both the Iraqi and Syrian governments, seeks to expand its influence. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar contest that by supporting Sunni Arab groups. Kurdish parties, meanwhile, see the conflict as an opportunity to gain long-sought independence.

Russian-sponsored media outlets are even discussing the idea. Turkey and Iran, which also have sizable Kurdish populations, may fear instability if Iraqi Kurdistan rushes for independence.

All this means that the defeat of ISIS is probably not the end of the conflict. A myopic U.S. strategy could be damaging to American interests in the region.

Trump’s National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, should make the interagency deliver at least three integrated options that prioritize different elements of national power.

First could be a military-centric approach that prioritizes the rapid defeat of ISIS. This option would entail coordination with Iraqi and Syrian forces (accepting that Assad is going to stay in power) and their Iranian and Russian backers.

Political, diplomatic, and economic efforts would need to encourage political reform in both countries and aim for reduced regional tensions. This approach is close to the status quo, with the important exception of working with Russia and Assad against ISIS.

A second option could place political reform at the center of the strategy with military, diplomatic, and economic efforts in support. This approach recognizes the deep animosities in Sunni Arab areas and the risks that the rapid defeat of ISIS could result in a different insurgency or massive repression.

Either way, the United States is likely to lose influence as Russia and Iran gain.

Instead, the United States should make military and economic support conditional on both Iraq and Syria making credible commitments toward Sunni Arab inclusion. This could include autonomy backed by international peacekeeping forces once ISIS is gone. This option requires more patience but stands a greater chance of preserving American influence in the long-run.

A third, diplomacy-oriented approach, could aim for long-term stability through a 4-State solution — with Iraqi and Syrian borders changed to accommodate a Kurdish and a Sunni Arab state. This approach recognizes the high unlikelihood of Sunni Arab reconciliation with the Iraqi or Syrian governments and the need for a sustainable path toward a Kurdish state.

It also recognizes that Sunni Arabs are more likely to turn against ISIS if they have a path toward self-governance. Sanctuary for Sunni Arabs fighting ISIS would need to be provided and protected. As above, military and economic support would be conditional upon agreement with the 4-State solution.   

Such options have important opportunities and risks that must be addressed, but offer ways to provide meaningful alternatives to the president.

ISIS is unlikely to be beaten without American support. It would be a tragedy for the United States to increase the use of military force only to find its interests undermined as ISIS is defeated. That risk grows larger if the president restricts himself to considering only low, medium, and high options.

Christopher D. Kolenda was senior advisor to Under Secretaries of Defense Michèle A. Flournoy and James Miller and to Generals Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, and Joseph Dunford.

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