AEI | McKeon on Defeating ISIL: ‘Fortune Favors the Bold’
The fight against ISIS (or ISIL) took another tragic turn with the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff. Meanwhile, ISIS continues to pursue its goal of establishing a caliphate not only across Iraq and Syria, but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan. How can the United States prevent ISIS from governing and raising armies in the heart of the Middle East?
A plan for the United States to help defeat ISIS: A conversation with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon
American Enterprise Institute
As we learned 13 years ago today, waiting until a terrorist organization is planning an imminent attack to take decisive and swift action will cost American lives. Before a packed house at AEI on Thursday, House Armed Service Committee Chairman Buck McKeon sat down with AEI’s Frederick W. Kagan to present his strategy to defeat ISIS and eradicate the growing threat it poses to the United States, its interests, and its allies and partners across the globe.
Rep. McKeon stressed in his opening remarks that any US strategy must acknowledge that ISIS is an immediate threat to US national security. This threat is the same one America faced on 9/11, if not worse.
Referencing President Obama’s primetime address last night, in which Obama emphasized the use of counterterrorism forces, Rep. McKeon warned that wars are not won by counterterrorism alone; the 1990s proved as much. Counterterrorism has not stopped the growth of ISIS or the spread of terrorist groups in the region.
Rep. McKeon argued that America’s allies in the region, such as the Kurds, Iraqis, Turks, Emeratis, and Jordanians, are willing to commit significant ground forces to eliminate ISIS. This is a unique opportunity that America must quickly seize. He stressed that America’s allies will not be able to succeed on the ground without US support in areas such as command and control, intelligence, refueling, and special operations.
He concluded that American boots will be needed to defeat ISIS. While this is a dangerous business, Rep. McKeon noted that the only thing more dangerous is waiting. It is better to fight ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria today than to fight them in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Kurdistan tomorrow.
Recent days have marked yet another tragedy in the fight against ISIS, the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff. Meanwhile, ISIS continues to pursue its goal of establishing a caliphate not only across Iraq and Syria but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan. How can the United States prevent ISIS from governing and raising armies in the heart of the Middle East?
On September 11, as we commemorate once again the bitter price Islamic jihadists have exacted on free people around the world, join us for a conversation with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA). Following Obama’s speech this Wednesday outlining his administration’s plans to combat ISIS, McKeon will lay out the specifics of his own strategy, including opportunities created by the president’s overtures to NATO and what more must be done from a military perspective to defeat ISIS and protect American interests in the Middle East. Only days after a trip to the region during which he met with leaders including King Abdullah II in Jordan, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, McKeon will offer his thoughts on how the US can work with our regional allies to accomplish this feat.
TRANSCRIPT OF SPEECH (From McKeon’s office)
Good morning. Thank you Fred for that introduction.It was at around this time, 9:03am, on this day 13 years ago, that the second plane hit the World Trade Center.Please join me in a moment of silence in remembrance. Thank you.
Here was Prime Minister Tony Blair’s comment on this day, 13 years ago:
“This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life, and we the democracies of this world are going to have to come together and fight it together.”
It could have been written yesterday.
The 9/11 Commission Report concluded, “The … attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise. Islamist extremists had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers.”
The same could be written again in the near future.
Several have remarked that ISIL today is more lethal than al Qaeda was on September 10th, 2001.
Yet the President has likened ISIL to the Junior Varsity team. He has argued that “America is safer”.
Nothing is further from the truth. This is the same threat we faced September 10th, 2001, if not worse.
I listened carefully to the President’s remarks last night and I welcomed them.
There are several elements of the President’s strategy that I support.
· Acting through a willing coalition,
· Ordering more air strikes and U.S. forces
· Stepping up intelligence collection,
· Cutting off their sources of funds,
· Curtailing the flow of foreign fighters.
· And training and equipping moderate opposition forces in Syria.
I also have full respect for the President and his wartime powers as Commander-in-Chief, but I have a responsibility to share my views about what more can be done.
This perspective is based on my years as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and informed as recently as last week, by a long trip I took throughout the Middle East.
There, I met with heads of state and multiple officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense.
I listened, and I asked questions. They gave me blunt answers and some hard truths.
Our allies are on the front lines of terrorism.There is a genuine sense among the leaders I talked with that America is disengaging from the region and concerns about American credibility, at a time when credibility counts.
Our relationships with these allies in the region are at a tipping point.
What is also notable is that these allies are ready to bear the burden of the fight. They know their very existence, and stability in the region, depends on defeating ISIL.
They need the United States support and capabilities to be able to do it. And it’s in our interests to be there.
The longer we wait, the further these relationships will erode and more lives will be lost.
In fact, none of the Allies there thought kinetic action, brought on by a full coalition, could wait another month, and certainly not longer than that.
So what must be done? We need a comprehensive strategy – one that pins ISIL down and knocks them out.
As much as I want the President’s approach to work, I believe the minimalist strategy he outlined last night will not get us there.
I sense that he may have allowed politics to limit our chances for success.
Today, I’m going to be brutally honest. I will not sugar coat the forces that will be needed or the risks involved.
First, our strategy must acknowledge that ISIL is an immediate threat to US national security, and treat it as such.
The President has said the threat is not imminent to the homeland.
Well exactly when does the threat become imminent? Why wait until it does?
We must have a comprehensive strategy that stops any plot against US citizens or our interests now.
Second, I call for swift action with a strategically realistic plan to defeat ISIL before they gain more steam.
Note that I did not say contain ISIL. I did not say manage ISIL.
Defeating ISIL is the only option on the table.
Eisenhower once snapped at a doubter on his D-Day planning staff, “this operation is being planned as a success.”
We must channel that resolve.
A go-slow strategy gives them space to thrive and grow and blend with the population.
Every month, 500 more foreign fighters join their ranks.
Every month, they raise nearly 85 million dollars in revenue just from oil.
Every day, ISIL identifies and brutally executes the Sunni moderates who might be convinced to work with us again. Soon all that will be left is a cowering population unable to resist the Caliphate.
ISIL is a Sunni movement. Getting the Sunnis to reject them is key.
While we wait to see what the newly formed government will do, we are missing the chance to get the Iraqi Sunni leaders on board, who can truly speak for their people .
And the job will be harder this time. The Sunnis must have reason to believe that we have their back if they stick their necks out with ISIL.
They must believe they have a future politically in Iraq.
Any US-led coalition must engage with the Sunnis and make them understand that this is not a sectarian fight against them.
And we have to get into those Sunni villages with Special Operations Forces to rebuild relationships.
Because if the moderate Sunnis slip through our fingers, they’re gone – and with them, our chances for success.
We have to reconnect the intelligence links and security forces’ capabilities that were lost when we left Iraq.
Iraqi Shia, Sunni, and Kurds all will be needed to maintain post-war security and stability.
That process has to start now.
Third, we must kick ISIL hard in both Iraq and Syria at the same time.
An “Iraq-first,” or an “Iraq only” approach won’t work.
They can never be defeated if they have a safe haven as big and remote as western Iraq or eastern Syria.
Now, striking in Syria will not be easy.
We must tailor operations there so that we do not empower Mr. Assad or al-Qaeda elements in-country.
That may sound difficult to do. And that’s because it is.
But, if we want ISIL defeated, we need them encircled. Any strategy that allows ISIL to squirt out into Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey will only make the fight more difficult.
A coalition force, empowered by the Americans, could do just that.
And once they are encircled and eliminated, we need that territory held by those friendlies.
This is the only way to get this done and done right.
The President has asked for the authority to train and equip moderate opposition forces in Syria.
He has implied that it’s Congress that has been stalling on giving him this tool. He also implies that this is the key to defeating ISIL in Syria.
Let’s be clear. There have been bipartisan doubts about this proposal, starting from within the White House.
Just last month, the President said that arming moderate rebels in Syria has “always been a fantasy” and that there wasn’t “as much capacity as you would hope.”
I too recognize the risks. Yet I support this effort as a necessary component for the long term security of Syria.
But arming surrogates and conducting sporadic airstrikes is not a formula for success against ISIL. It is not timely enough or decisive enough.
We have learned that in Yemen and the Horn of Africa after many years.
Coalition operations, on the ground and in the air, backed by the enabling capabilities of the United States, will be required.
Fourth, the U.S. must take the lead to build a coalition, which the President has finally started.
As I indicated earlier, the brutality of ISIL is appalling.
The Kurds, the Iraqis, the Turks, the Emeratis, and the Jordanians all have military capability.
They all want to knock ISIL on its back.
They need our help, they want our help, and we owe them our help.
Ignoring their pleas is a quick way to end up friendless with little, if any, U.S. influence left in the region. Let’s not forget that our allies around the world are watching and wondering if they can ever trust the U.S. again.
American leadership isn’t an option here. It is a necessity.
We are the missing piece in the puzzle.
There are certain capabilities that we have invested in for decades — the ability to control air and sea space, the ability to put troops in difficult terrain and hostile territories, the ability to supply forces and communicate on the battlefield.
That’s how we pull these nations together.
Now look. This is no light lift. But the man who held together the most difficult alliance in history, Dwight Eisenhower, had it right when he said, “only strength can cooperate, weakness can only beg.”
Though many allies have strong doubts about the Obama Administration’s willpower, America still carries weight in the Middle East.
I do believe we can bring Sunnis and Shias and Kurds and even Turks together.
To make that happen, the President needs an A-team of diplomats and soldiers on the ground, ushering every player towards the same purpose – not just this week, but on a sustained basis.
We heard good things from Western allies at the NATO summit.
Now is the time to match words to action. They have a stake in this fight, too.
We’re holding the starter pistol; the time to pull the trigger was yesterday.
Now, most of us cringe at the term “boots on the ground.” But we need to talk about what “boots on the ground” actually means.
Some have taken it to mean large occupying forces in a hostile land. That’s a red herring.In fact the best way to ensure that we never have to drop an entire maneuver Corps into Iraq is to be smart about using the right boots on the ground today.
The President may not admit it, but he has already made this distinction. He has inserted Special Forces, trainers, advisors, and security forces.This is the right decision. But more can be done.
That includes increasing our assistance to the Kurds.
It means empowering moderate Sunnis when and where we can, and bolstering the non-sectarian forces in the Iraqi security forces.
This will take troops. It will not take divisions.
But there’s no way around it; American boots will be standing on sand. Americans will be shot at, and they will be shooting back. There’s simply no other way to do this.
This strategy isn’t without risk. Neither is the President’s. It would be wrong to sell it that way to the American people.
This is a dangerous business. It is dangerous any time we have our sons and daughters take to the skies, the seas, or the shores to defeat an enemy.
The only thing more dangerous is waiting.
Finally, we must not rely solely on counterterrorism.
Wars are not won by counterterrorism alone – the 1990s proved as much.
The President has implied that he will approach the problem of ISIL with a heavy emphasis on counterterrorism forces. The same tool he has used for 7 years.
That’s like trying to solve a puzzle with a single piece.
C-T has not stopped the growth of ISIL and the spread of terrorist groups in the region.
The President wants to use a light footprint now in hopes that he doesn’t need a heavy footprint later.
This approach was not terribly successful in Libya, which has fallen into chaos.
It has short-term benefits, though. It will be cheaper in blood and treasure –for now.
I want our coalition to go all-in now, so that we do not risk having to use enormously more blood and treasure later.
I would much rather fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria today than fight them in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Kurdistan tomorrow.
Fortune favors the bold.
ISIL is a threat that we all share. They are an enemy of the free world and must be stopped.
I believe the President is finally waking up to what must be done to stop this evil.
So long as he commits, fully and without hesitation, to swiftly and decisively defeating this enemy, he will have my support.
History punished us once thirteen years ago today. It is the responsibility of us all to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
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