Is It Boots on the Ground vs. Terrorist Attacks?
November 20, 2015
In the wake of the Paris attacks public opinion polls indicate that the American people are pretty much evenly divided over whether or not to send substantial numbers of U.S. troops back to the Iraq and Syria? Even more than the results of most polls, these raise questions about how well informed the respondents were.
Were the respondents aware of the strategic disadvantages of using U.S. troops to defeat ISIS?
The strategic disadvantage of using U.S. troops in the fight is that it changes the focus for the people in the region from defeating ISIS to the presence of foreign (i.e., U.S.) troops in their land. Although the U.S. media is focused on ISIS, they are not the only warring faction in the area. Besides Shia and Sunni, there is also the on-going civil war between Assad and various rebel groups in Syria. Moreover, the countries of the region such as Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have their own national interests and allegiances, as well the embedded religious conflict be Sunni and Shia.
Two consequences follow from this. First, all the warring factions in the region are likely to unite against the U.S. because it is the foreign invader and will undoubtedly threaten some of these long standing interests. The very presence of the U.S. in Iraq eventually undermined the stability of relationships and impelled the Maliki government to demur from signing a status of forces agreement allowing U.S. forces to remain in Iraq. In addition, research indicates that the indigenous reaction to foreign invaders is heightened resistance such as suicide bombers. Second, assuming that hostilities between U.S. troops and ISIS cease and that cessation can be interpreted as some kind of victory, it is almost certain some relatively low level of hostility will persist and, once U.S. troops leave, ISIS or a similar jihadi group will reemerge.
Were the respondents aware of how long the U.S. would be engaged in such an operation and what its cost would be (e.g., in taxes)?
Once U.S. troops have been re-introduced into the region (probably more than the 162,000 who were in Iraq at one point), a rather long but unknowable occupation will be required. Senator John McCain and other war hawks, while acknowledging the need for an occupation, downplay the importance of such an occupation by noting that we still have troops in Germany 70 years after the end of World War II. Considering the extent to which the Allies crushed Germany, a fully modern nation state before the war, compared to Middle East, an estimated 70 occupation may be on the low side.
The cost incurred in blood and treasure from the initial invasion through the end of the occupation will depend on factors that cannot be easily estimated. A reasonable starting point would be the Iraq Occupation; the U.S. is still paying for the care of wounded veterans. But, there were 4500 casualties and cost $2 trillion dollars so far and may grow to $4 trillion.
And, did the respondents believe that the reintroduction of U.S. troops in end the threat of terror attacks in the U.S.?
Several analysts following the U.S. air war against ISIS have noted that it, along with allies on the ground, ISIS has lost almost 25 percent of the territory it once held. These analysts argue that the terrorist attacks in Paris may be result of a shift in tactics due to constraints in efforts to establish a caliphate. If they are correct, then the re-introduction of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria may very well lead to increased efforts to mount terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Obama, his national security team, and other Democratic leaders need to make decisions based on full understanding of the risks - not on polls. (At this point as most Republicans audition for 2016 or positions in the next Republican administration, it is not possible for them to make any reasonable contributions.) They also need to help Americans understand why certain strategies may not be effective in fighting ISIS. It is time not only for good analysis, but also good communication.