By Lt. Col. (ret) Daniel L. Davis
After more than a year of effort, U.S.-backed forces in the Middle East—supported by U.S. military advisors, special operators on the ground, and tens of thousands of airstrikes—have ejected ISIS from their so-called Iraqi “capital” of Mosul and their Syrian “capital” of Raqqa. The most important question: Has this use of the U.S. military made America safer? Sadly, the answer is an unambiguous “no.”
The United States’ Armed Forces exist to protect and defend the United States and our citizens. They should only be used when vital national interests are at stake, and even then, only when all other measures to preserve our security have been exhausted.
The American taxpayers ultimately provide the financial means to build and support the Armed Forces, and we send our men and women to fight, and if necessary die, to defend the United States and the Constitution. The U.S. military should not be forced to sacrifice their blood and limbs, however, to send “messages,” to prop up foreign governments, or to aid various rebel groups around the world in accomplishing their local political objectives.
By these standards, the hard-fought military successes our Armed Forces have enabled in Iraq and Syria have at best been sacrifices made on behalf of other nations, not the United States, and at worst prolonged strategic failure.
With ISIS’ tactical defeat—depriving them of land, not life—there is now a window of opportunity, however, to limit further damage and preserve U.S. military strength: The U.S. Forces that were deployed to Iraq and Syria to battle ISIS should now be redeployed to the U.S.
There are those who believe that the U.S. military should remain, in perpetuity, throughout Iraq and even Syria. Many of these pundits and so-called experts claim that ISIS arose because President Obama didn’t leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and instead withdrew them all in 2011. I have previously written in detail why this belief doesn’t hold an ounce of strategic water, but the idea of leaving U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria makes less sense now than at any time since eliminating those responsible for 9/11.
Using the U.S. military in the Middle East is like sticking a fist in a bucket of water.
When the strong fist goes into the bucket, the water is powerless to resist and immediately dissipates. In like manner, everywhere the U.S. Armed Forces have gone in the Middle East, there have been no powers that can stop them. But also, like that fist in the bucket, as soon as our forces withdraw, the “water” immediately flows back, and no evidence remains that the fist was ever there. There is no timeline that changes this fact—this will be the case regardless of how long our troops remain in the region.
When the U.S. surged 20,000 troops into Iraq in 2007, bringing the total to more than 160,000, the insurgency was dramatically beaten back, and the level of violence waned. Barely three years after their departure, however, the “water” rolled back in, and internal violence resumed, this time in the form of ISIS.
Lest anyone mistakenly believe ISIS wouldn’t have arisen had Obama kept 10,000 U.S. troops deployed, it is important to note that the disintegration of the Iraqi Army in June 2014 occurred because the political leadership in Baghdad systematically purged the Sunni leadership within the force and filled the top ranks with cronies who were given patronage jobs. This purge fatally weakened the Iraqi Army, and it wouldn’t have mattered if 20,000 U.S. troops had remained—the army would still have disintegrated.
In 2011, while the U.S. and NATO had 140,000 troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban was kept at bay. This time, learning an alleged lesson from Iraq, the U.S. kept thousands of troops there. Yet, like clockwork, every time a NATO unit withdrew from a given location in Afghanistan, the Taliban immediate flowed in to challenge or retake the ground.
The 10,000 American troops had no effect—the insurgents now control large swaths of the country and are stronger than at any time since 2001. One of the prime reason for the rise in insurgent power, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Recovery (SIGAR), was Afghan government corruption. Again, reality reared its head: Military power cannot compel political accommodation, especially when it comes from outside forces.
Now, U.S.-backed forces have driven ISIS out of their Iraqi capital of Mosul and from the Syrian headquarters in Raqqa. Some may be tempted to suggest the U.S. should stay for decades to prevent the cities from returning again to violence. Keep the fist in the bucket, the thinking goes, and the water won’t return. Yet this is demonstrably false.
Even before military leaders and politicians have finished congratulating each other for the victories in Raqqa and Mosul—and everyone certainly prefers ISIS control no soil—there are serious new challenges threatening to reignite the flames of violence. There are two competing civilian counsels for Raqqa that both claim authority, and Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces appear to be preparing to retake Raqqa for their side. In Mosul, there are already reports of friction between Shia and Sunni and a strong distrust of the government.
More ominously, the U.S. has relied heavily on the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq to check the rise of ISIS since 2014 and then to assist in defeating them in Mosul a couple months ago. Yet shorn of the unifying focus of defeating ISIS, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Shia militia (called Hashd al-Shaabi)—along with the concurrence of Iran and Turkey—have moved to attack the U.S.-backed Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk and elsewhere in punishment for their September vote for independence.
Even if the U.S. kept military forces there forever, these ethnic, religious, and political conflicts would not be solved.
More to the point: There is no U.S. national interest in ensuring one faction defeats another. We helped both the ISF and Peshmerga, yet now they’re fighting one another. Whose should we help now? Who should we abandon? No matter the choice, when the U.S. military fist is withdrawn, the water of chaos will return.
And U.S. interests will remain unchanged.
We should offer diplomatic services where they are necessary to achieve our objectives, but we should not choose sides in internecine conflicts that will not end or be solved by our military power. We should cease sacrificing the lives and limbs of our service members to prevent warring factions from killing each other, and instead reserve the best military in the world to provide safety for Americans. That would allow us to rebuild our military strength for the possibility of future fights that have a direct impact on our national security.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1
This piece was originally published by Military Times on October 26, 2017. Read more HERE.