'There is no silver bullet that will kill the caliphate outright'
ISIS’s crown jewel in Iraq for more than two years is all but guaranteed to fall soon to a major military offensive led by Iraqi security forces and bolstered by U.S. advisers and airpower. Retaking Mosul, a city of 1 million that has been a keystone to ISIS’s claims as a caliphate, isn’t going to be the problem for the new U.S. President. It’s the morning after the Iraqi flag begins flying anew over Iraq’s second largest city that’s the real challenge. The U.S. has never lacked the firepower to win the war. But it doesn’t seem to have the strategy, or the willpower, to win the peace.
The U.S. took Mosul once, kicking out Saddam Hussein’s forces in 2003, before the U.S.-trained Iraq army fled the city when ISIS invaded in 2014. Centuries of rivalries among the Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds complicate any prospects for stability. “There are many long-standing disputes over territory, resources and governmental power,” says retired Army general David Petraeus, who calmed Mosul as commander of the 101st Airborne Division shortly after the U.S. invasion. “We can anticipate endless arguments.”
Unfortunately, there is no secret post-Obama U.S. plan to restore a semblance of stability to lands regained from the shrinking caliphate. “Everybody thinks there is something on the shelf—some State Department flyaway team or some magic formula—but there isn’t,” says James Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat who served as Washington’s man in Baghdad from 2010 to 2012. In fact, most plans are still lacking. Iraq doesn’t have a strategy to secure and govern Mosul once it falls. The central government is signing up Shiʻite militia forces, linked to Iran, that have abused civilians, seized land and fought with their putative Kurdish allies. Plans for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Mosul are scant, as is a blueprint for how power will be shared among the three factions once ISIS is kicked out.
Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has issued a detailed plan for handling ISIS. Clinton’s approach echoes President Obama’s go-slow strategy, though she wants a no-fly zone over Syria to protect civilians. Trump has pledged to “bomb the sh-t” out of ISIS’s oil operations to choke off revenue but says he wants to keep his war plans secret to keep ISIS, and American voters, guessing.
At the top of the must-do list after Iraq and the U.S. drive ISIS from Mosul is making sure the Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds share in the nation’s power and resources, a vexing problem that has thwarted progress ever since the U.S. invaded. Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who oversaw the region as head of U.S. Central Command, says the tight hold on power by the Shi’ites was more to blame for the rise of ISIS in Iraq than the U.S. troop pullout in 2011. “The big question,” Zinni says, “is can Iraq ever be a truly inclusive country again?” Only if power is truly shared, he continues, may success be possible.
But while the U.S. can push for such comity, it can’t order it to happen. The next President may be forced to tell Baghdad to shape up or see the U.S. walk away from the table. “Most Americans now accept, even if they will not admit, that the U.S. does not have the capacity to restore stability to a region that we did so much to destabilize,” says military scholar and retired Army officer Andrew Bacevich.
Power sharing alone, while required, won’t be sufficient. And if the State Department lacks a secret plan for the mission, at least one Army officer is pondering how to do better this time. “We need to find the right levers to achieve a sustainable peace,” says Major Jonathan Bate, a veteran of three tours in Afghanistan who now lectures in economics at West Point. The U.S., he believes, pumped too much money into too-big projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. He likens it to a 21st century Marshall Plan that did little to change the lives of those living amid the ruins.
“We tried the top-down approach, spending $60 billion in Iraq and $114 billion in Afghanistan, and it fell apart,” Bate says. “We built schools and hospitals and massive electric plants, but the people might not see those benefits for years, when they need income and security now.” The emphasis should be on items that clearly and quickly make life better, like food, clothing, shelter, school supplies and first-aid kits, he says. There’s evidence that such investments do more than bigger projects to dampen violence.
Of course, a new U.S. Administration could also double down to try to end the five-year-old Syrian civil war, which has helped fuel ISIS’s rise. “The cost of stabilizing Mosul and [Syrian ISIS stronghold] Raqqa at this point exceeds what just about any American is now willing to pay, so some version of containment is what we’re going to be living with in Syria for a long time,” says Stephen Biddle, a former professor at the Army War College who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Unless Trump wins, in which case all bets are off.”
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, wants a more muscular approach too. While the U.S. and Iraq tend to the Iraqi half of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, the U.S. military must do more in Syria, he argues. It should create safe zones for Syrian civilians and shoot down President Bashar Assad’s aircraft, which have been bombing civilians in rebel-held neighborhoods around Aleppo, the country’s largest city. Russian warplanes, McCain adds, should face the same fate.
But there is no silver bullet to kill the caliphate outright, and its death throes could last for decades. “The U.S. government hasn’t leveled with the American people and told them this is going to be like the Cold War,” says Daniel Bolger, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded in Iraq and Afghanistan and teaches military history at North Carolina State University. “It’s going to run for 50, 60 or 100 years.”
That’s one reason Bate has been working to figure out how to bring security to war-torn lands. “My little brother is deployed to Iraq now,” he says. And while he and his wife have no kids yet, they’re thinking of starting a family. “My concern,” he adds, “is how do we make sure my kids don’t end up there too.”
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.