This article originally appeared in Ranger Up’s Rhino Den.
Back in early 2014, President Obama famously dismissed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, which is effectively Al Qaeda 2.0) as a “JV team.” This happened shortly after the terrorist organization seized the strategically-important Iraqi city of Fallujah …which maybe should have been the first indication that the organization was anything but “junior varsity.”
In the time since the President’s ill-chosen words, ISIS (also known as ISIL, or simply IS) has exploded across both what was Syria and Iraq, demonstrating extreme staying power and even adopting the trappings of a traditional state. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, especially the US, has come up empty. As a multi-tour veteran of the war in Iraq it pains me deeply to say this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to the current situation in Iraq, ISIS isn’t the “JV” team, we are. Here’s why:
1) They have a plan . . . we don’t
Our President has admitted at least twice that “we don’t have a strategy” for winning in Iraq. The first time he said it was back in September of 2014, when he stated, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, we don’t have a strategy yet.” Despite this claim, he loaded up the figurative “cart” with more than 3,500 US troops and shoved it headlong out into the free-fire zone, formerly known as the country of Iraq, leaving the “horse,” and any semblance of a strategy to actually win, back at home.
More than 10 months later, the President admitted AGAIN that he had no plan for ISIS, stating that almost a year later that the US still does not have a “complete strategy” to counter ISIS. How is that even possible? Mr. President, aren’t you the Commander in Chief? Can’t you order your people to produce a complete strategy if they haven’t already done so? They were pretty good at drafting up plans for fighting Ebola in Africa or doing disaster relief in Nepal, where there were absolutely zero US citizens being killed and zero national interests being threatened. So why now, more than a year in, do we not have a national strategy to beat ISIS?
Now I know right about now some of you are thinking, “But . . . but . . . what about ‘disrupt, degrade, destroy?’” Sorry folks, it takes more than military buzzwords to form a coherent strategy. And how can it be a strategy when the President himself keeps saying that we don’t have one?
On the other hand, however, ISIS has always been clear on their intent. Even if the name of the organization has changed, their goal has never wavered: an Islamic state — a caliphate — in which Islamic law reigns supreme. Simple enough. And they are not afraid to tell the world what their strategy is, or to ruthless set about making it happen.
2) They found a way to get the Sunni tribes to fight “for” something . . . we never did.
Inside Iraq, ISIS draws strength from the Sunni minority in western and northern Iraq. They have mobilized these tribes and set them to deadly purpose, in a way we never seemed to be able to do. About the best we could manage with Iraq’s Sunnis was to get them to stop fighting us and (sometimes) get them to fight against Al Qaeda. We never got them to fight “for” something. ISIS has. Now we’re doubling down on the failed strategy to “train Iraqi forces” in the hopes that they will be able to salvage what is left of the state of Iraq. Well, I watched that movie for more than 10 years, and I already know how it ends. So does ISIS.
3) Their support is growing… ours is waning
ISIS continues to draw recruits from all over the world, and compel them to attack us right here in the US. They own us on social media. Our counter-narrative, if it even exists, seems to have zero impact. We had almost no influence inside Syria before ISIS’s emergence, and now we have none. Our influence in Iraq was overtaken by ISIS on the Sunni side and by Iran on the Shiite front.
“But what about the Kurds?” They gain the most not from an Iraq based on the US model, but on a fractured state that would allow them a fully independent Kurdistan. Everyone wants our money and our weapons, but none of them want our advice, or support our image of what Iraq should be.
4) They’re winning… we aren’t.
ISIS is winning. Take a look at a map: they took and so far have held Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi, and other strategically-important cities in northern and western Iraq. They even took Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, and were only dislodged with a combined effort that included military forces from Iraq, Iran, and the US, as well as Shiite militias. ISIS is taking and holding territory almost at will, and they are knocking on the front door of Baghdad. We’re knocking too, but the government doesn’t want to let us back in . . . and I’m not sure I blame them.
5) They want to win . . . we, apparently, don’t.
We say things like “It is not possible to know at this time the precise scope or the duration of the deployments of U.S. Armed Forces.” But for ISIS, it’s entirely possible to know what it’s going to require and how long it’s going to take to get to their desired endstate. Their perspective is more along the lines of “everything we have, for as long as it takes, until we win or die.” That type of clarity of purpose and long-term commitment is completely absent on the US side.
ISIS is going to win in Iraq. There. I said it.
I’m not alone in this thinking either. In fact, many prominent thinkers are starting to plan for this eventuality. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the direction we’re all heading. ISIS has a plan. They are organized. They motivated the Sunnis in a way we never could. Their support is growing. They are currently winning. And, most importantly, they WANT to win. We don’t have any of that going for us.
Back on that fateful day in 2014, President Obama said about ISIS: “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” You’re right, Mr. President, it doesn’t. And it doesn’t take Phil Jackson to know that in the current conflict in Iraq, ISIS isn’t the “JV team” . . . we are.
I wrote this article over a year ago. Is it still true today?