Within hours of the end of the terror attacks in Paris, French warplanes were bombing ISIS targets in and around the proto-state’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in north-central Syria. While the world nodded approvingly at the swift retaliation, it overlooked a key point: the targets had little to do with the horrors France had just suffered.
That’s the challenge posed by ISIS. Like a fire that self-combusts, ISIS can’t be extinguished by bombing it into oblivion and severing communications links to its distant outposts. Instead of copper wire, fiber optics or radio waves carrying orders to faraway fighters, it simply sends exhortations to any wannabe jihadist with a smart phone.
It’s the kindling that fuels ISIS that needs to be removed. That’s going to take years, if not decades, Pentagon officials say. But military action can still play an important role: whenever ISIS is forced into a defensive crouch, it’s less likely to be able to foment attacks far from its home base. And if the central fire can be put out—like the allies vanquished Hitler and Tojo in World War II—the belief is that the remaining embers will eventually burn themselves out, too.
Following Friday’s attacks in France that killed at least 129 people, a new debate has erupted inside the U.S. government: Should Washington step up its military offense, alongside NATO and perhaps even Russia, to destroy ISIS, before ISIS attacks the U.S.? Or should it double-down on defense, relying on increased intelligence, air strikes and new barriers to immigration to thwart attacks on the homeland? Any revamped strategy will involve elements of both, largely because defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is going to take years and require both offensive and defense tactics.
Since the attacks, calls have mounted for the U.S. to seize the offense against ISIS, which French leaders blamed for the Paris attacks. ISIS also has taken responsibility for recent attacks on a Russian airliner over Egypt, and in Beirut, that have killed hundreds more. James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who served as NATO’s top commander from 2009 to 2013, said the alliance should go to war to defeat ISIS.
“The Islamic State is an apocalyptic organization overdue for eradication” by NATO’s 3 million troops, 25,000 aircraft and 800 warships, he wrote in Foreign Policy. “There is a time for soft power and playing the long game in the Middle East, but there is also a time for the ruthless application of hard power.” Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who served as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, would like to see a 10,000-strong U.S. ground force attack ISIS, aided by tens of thousands of local troops.
President Obama isn’t biting. “We are going to continue to pursue the strategy that has the best chance of working, even though it does not offer the satisfaction, I guess, of a neat headline or an immediate resolution,” he said Monday in Turkey.
“On the military front, we are continuing to accelerate what we do,” he added. But he firmly rejected the idea of sending large numbers of U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS. “It is not just my view, but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers that that would be a mistake,” Obama said. “Not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance, and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”
Senior military leaders—tapped by Obama for their posts—have gone along with his incremental approach. At his confirmation hearing to serve as the nation’s top military officer in July, Marine General Joseph Dunford said the military, by itself, cannot destroy ISIS. “This is a long-term endeavor,” he said shortly before his confirmation as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This is on the order of years and not months.” Beyond military might, he said it will take local ground forces, effective local governments, a halt in ISIS financing and tighter borders in the region to prevail—a tall order for a region wracked by instability.
U.S. firepower against ISIS since the American attacks began in August 2014 have been more of a “desert drizzle” than a Desert Storm, according to retired Air Force lieutenant general David Deptula, who ran the Air Force’s targeting campaign during that 1991 conflict with Iraq. Through the end of October, U.S. Central Command figures show, the U.S. and its allies have dropped 28,578 weapons—67 a day—on ISIS targets. “I’ve always been skeptical of the claim that airpower alone can solve such problems, but to be fair, airpower isn’t getting a fair trial,” says Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and military expert. “This isn’t an air campaign—it’s a political campaign that burns a lot of jet fuel.”
But while it’s hardly an all-out air war, in part that’s due to the dearth of targets ISIS has, and the U.S. unwillingness to risk civilian casualties. Through Nov. 13, U.S. and allied airpower has damaged or destroyed 16,075 ISIS targets, including 129 tanks and 356 Humvees (many captured by ISIS when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Iraqi army in June 2014). The rest of the targets claimed by Central Command—staging areas, buildings and fighting positions—are of dubious military utility and easily replaced.
U.S. warplanes are carrying out about 78% of the attacks, with the rest coming from allies including France, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The allies are also dropping more bombs per mission: last year, 31% of the warplanes that flew over ISIS targets dropped bombs or fired missiles; this year the share has risen to 46%. In October, the bomb drop averaged 86 per day, more than four times the number France reportedly dropped in its first wave of strikes following the attacks on Paris.
The Pentagon also has deployed about 3,500 troops to the region, including about 50 teaming with Kurdish forces in northern Syria. That deployment follows a failed year-long U.S. effort to train moderate Syrian rebels outside the country to fight ISIS while pledging not to go after Syrian President Bashar Assad. He’s the dictator whose family’s 40-year reign sparked the four-year-old civil war that has killed 250,000 and sent 4 million refugees fleeing Syria. The rest of the 3,500 U.S. troops are in Iraq, training and advising an Iraqi army that U.S. taxpayers already spent $25 billion training and advising from 2003 to 2011.
Some military experts insist more U.S. troops isn’t the answer. “Whenever anybody talks about boots on the ground, they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they are dangerously irresponsible, or stupid,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. has been steadily improving its efforts at counter-terrorism since 9/11.”
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the U.S. military’s role is likely to be more of the same, Pentagon officials say. Absent an Obama change of heart against putting U.S. boots on the ground, there will be increased air strikes in and around Raqqa, a likely loosening of some bombing restrictions that could lead to more civilian casualties, and more special operations to track down and kill ISIS leaders.
The Pentagon made clear just how little is changing in its first announcement on a change in U.S. strategy wrought by Paris. “In the wake of the recent attack on France, we stand strong and firm with our oldest ally, which is why the U.S. and France have decided to bolster our intelligence sharing,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement on Monday. “New instructions” from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, “will enable U.S. military personnel to more easily share operational planning information and intelligence with our French counterparts on a range of shared challenges to the fullest extent allowed by existing law and policy.”
That may seem like a frustratingly inadequate tweak (“to the fullest extent allowed by existing law and policy” makes it sound more like a limited lifetime warranty on a kitchen appliance than a clash of civilizations) given the Paris attacks, but over-reaction can do just as much harm. “We’ve been trying to figure out how military power can sort out the larger parts of the Islamic world for 35 years, and we’re no closer to finding a solution than we were back when Jimmy Carter set us off on this road,” Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who opposes sending in more ground troops, says. “Frankly, we’ve made things worse.”
Read More: Battling ISIS: Utility or Futility?
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