By Charles V. Peña
Several bombings in Iraq attributed to ISIS in mid-May that killed more than a hundred civilians and wounded hundreds more are a tragic reminder that Iraq is still a nation in turmoil. But they should also be a reason – more than 13 years after the decision to topple Saddam Hussein and undertake nation building in Mesopotamia – to re-evaluate U.S. policy in Iraq. The decision to invade Iraq has cost more than 2 trillion dollars (remember when the Bush administration claimed it would cost $50-60 billion?) The cost to deploy a single soldier in Iraq is estimated at roughly $775,000 per year – with nearly 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, that’s almost $4 billion per year. And the cost of airstrikes is about $8 million a day (or about $3 billion per year). Are these costs worth continuing to bear?
To begin, it can’t be over-emphasized that ISIS is largely a threat in Iraq and the immediate region. ISIS’ overarching strategic goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Muslim world. They are waging a war within the Islamic world. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the vast majority of victims of ISIS’ attacks have been Muslims. The hard truth is that very public brutal and savage executions of Americans by ISIS are not threats to U.S. national security, the homeland, or the American way of life. That is not condoning ISIS’ actions, but simply a clear-eyed recognition of the truth. We have to understand that they are clearly meant as provocation intended to draw the U.S. into a larger ground war to confirm the ISIS narrative that the West is engaged in a modern day crusade to kill Muslims. We cannot afford to take the bait.
Recognizing that ISIS is a regional threat rather than a direct threat to the U.S. homeland means that the burden of combating ISIS should not fall primarily on the United States. Rather, a better solution is to let the nations in the region – primarily Turkey and the Gulf states – deal with the problem since they are most threatened and have the most to lose. But that also means that the U.S. has to be willing to accept that it cannot engineer the solution and be able to live with less than perfect. So that means possibly giving up on regime change in Syria (knowing that however unsavory the Assad regime might be, it does not represent a direct threat to U.S. national security – much the same as Saddam Hussein in Iraq was also not a direct threat) and allowing Syria to confront ISIS. The same is true for the mullahs in Iran.
But aren’t the Paris terrorist attacks last November and the Brussels bombings in March (both of which ISIS claimed responsibility) proof that ISIS is waging war against the West? Certainly, that’s the popular political narrative. Indeed, French president Francois Hollande declared the Paris attacks an “act of war.” Hollande also claimed that the attacks were “against France, against the values that we defend everywhere in the world.” But destroying the democratic values of the West has not been an ISIS goal. The reality is that targeting both France and Belgium had more to do with those governments’ foreign policy. An ISIS statement after the Paris attacks made clear that they were act of revenge for France’s involvement in the U.S.-led coalition bombing of militants in Iraq and Syria. And it said Belgium was targeted as “a country participating in the international coalition against the Islamic State.” In other words, they were attacks in response to Western military intervention in Muslim countries.
So instead of focusing our security efforts on military intervention abroad, we would be better off with improved intelligence capabilities (particularly human intelligence rather than widespread technological eavesdropping) and being able to know who is trying to come into the country who might pose a threat.
Yet we ignore rather than heed ISIS just as we did al Qaeda before them. Why did Laden make the U.S. a target for terrorism? He couldn’t have been more clear: It was in response for the United States “occupying the lands of Islam” 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia – the holy land of Mecca and Medina – after the first Gulf War. Just as those 5,000 troops in Saudi Arabia were an unnecessary U.S. military intervention, so are the nearly 5,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. They will not make a material difference in the security situation in Iraq. But they will provide ISIS credibility to claim the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, easily recruit and radicalize more Muslims to its cause, and put America squarely in its crosshairs.
And airstrikes have proven to be largely ineffective at great cost. As of the end of last year, the U.S. and its allies had conducted more than 8,500 airstrikes (the majority by the U.S.) against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. According to the U.S., some 10,000 militants had been killed by airstrikes, or about 1.1 ISIS fighters killed per bomb dropped – at a cost of about $2.5 million per airstrike. Worse yet, according to the Pentagon, the bombing during that time yielded no apparent net loss in the total number of ISIS fighters.
More soldiers and more bombs are not the solution to ISIS. This is an ideological battle that can only be fought and won by Muslims – and will not be resolved anytime soon. As such, the United States would do well to not insert itself in the middle of a civil war, which only makes it a target. We would be better off by adopting a position of restraint and acting as an offshore balancer-of-last-resort – intervening only if and when the situation can no longer be contained by the nations in the region.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with the Defense Priorities Foundation. He has more than twenty-five years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books).
This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on June 2, 2016. Read more HERE.