Should the coalition forces fighting Islamic State aim to destroy it or just halt it?
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Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, is absolutely certain. “We are prepared for the final battle against ISIS,” he told the press this week.
Barzani has good reason to be optimistic, after the Kurdish forces in Syria, together with his forces, repelled Islamic State’s forces from Kobani and also retook a number of adjacent villages.
The liberation of Kobani, which could not have happened without massive U.S. air support, can also be chalked up as a success for the Western coalition, which has not had many achievements to point to up to now.
But important as Kobani is, it’s just one milestone, and the victory here is not enough to bring down Islamic State, also known as ISIS, or uproot it from Syria and Iraq.
The coalition forces face two main problems: the absence of a clear strategy toward the ultimate objective, and the deep divisions among the forces that are fighting Islamic State.
Last week, the U.K. parliament’s Defense Committee issued an interesting report about the Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
One finding: Of the more than 150,000 Peshmerga soldiers, only 40,000 are under the control of the Peshmerga ministry in the Kurdistan government. The rest are under the direct oversight of Barzani’s KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and of Jalal Talabani’s PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) party.
About a quarter of them can be called ghost soldiers – for whom wages are paid, though they do not actually exist. The arms they possess are insufficient and not mobile, and tribal loyalties are dividing the ranks.
These internal rifts are making it difficult to coordinate actions in the field, and giving rise to priorities that rest more on political ambitions than on developments on the battlefield.
The British report also paints a bleak picture of the situation in the Iraqi army, which has yet to recover from its massive defeat in June 2014 when ISIS forces invaded.
Iraq’s new prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has begun to clean out the ranks of the military, dismissing 36 senior commanders, but the disputes between his government and the Kurds over the division of oil profits and payment of salaries to the Peshmerga fighters remain unresolved despite a signed agreement.
As a result, for now the Kurdish forces are still willing to fight only in or near the Kurdish areas, not in Iraqi areas such as Anbar Province west of Baghdad.
The campaign in western Iraq is also suffering from a lack of cooperation with the Sunni tribes, though in some cities, armed militias have formed to fight ISIS.
A week ago, Iraq’s government approved a bill to establish a national guard that would provide a framework in which tribal militias could operate under government patronage.
But it’s not yet certain whether this law, which many ministers opposed, will be passed in the parliament because some legislators fear that new Sunni militias could form the core of a Sunni army.
Meanwhile, dozens of Shi'ite militias operate in Iraq, each one loyal to a different political organization or local leader. These militias are united in aiming to eliminate Islamic State, but they are not cooperating with the Sunni or Kurdish forces.
Added to the disputes within Iraq are the disputes in the international community. For instance, the United Arab Emirates said it would stop participating in air strikes until a rapid-response force was established to rescue pilots who are injured or shot down in battle.
This announcement followed Islamic State’s video showing Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh being savagely burned to death. The U.S. quickly deployed several rescue helicopters to the airport in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, to meet the UAE’s demand. Previously, the closest air-rescue team was stationed in distant Kuwait.
While the UAE’s reservations had to do with technical matters, in Britain the question being asked is: What is the objective of the war, to wipe out Islamic State or just to halt and contain it?
Conservative MP Rory Stewart, chairman of the Defense Select Committee, thinks that degrading Islamic State’s capabilities, halting and containing it are more realistic goals than destroying it.
He chiefly finds fault with the meager resources that Britain is investing in the war effort, saying that British forces have participated in only about 6 percent of the coalition air strikes.
But Stewart, too, does not propose any clear strategy. How can Islamic State’s power be degraded? Can this be done without the use of ground forces? And what does “containment” mean? Does it mean letting Islamic State continue to wield control in places where it has established itself and stopping it from spreading to other areas?
The same questions are being asked in Washington. “We are doing what needs to be done in the war against ISIS,” President Barack Obama declared.
His rivals in Congress are not convinced this is so, but they have no clear answers to offer either. It’s easier for them to criticize Obama than to put forth a realistic plan.