Were West's assumptions about Islamic State wrong?

The Paris attacks have changed the calculations around the Islamic State, which has become a major international terrorist sponsor quicker than anticipated.  

Defense Ministry/ECPAD/ AP
A French Rafale fighter jet takes off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Mediterranean sea. The French Defense Ministry says it has launched its first airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Mosul.

When French President François Hollande arrives in Washington Tuesday, he will meet with an American president well versed in all the reasons not to join France's efforts to "intensify" military action against the Islamic State. President Obama's two terms have been about extricating the United States from military entanglements abroad. 

But Mr. Hollande will also have one obvious and overwhelming point in his favor: The equation under which the Obama administration has been operating has changed. 

The question of what precisely “intensify” might mean is an open one that runs the spectrum from stepped-up airstrikes to more US military boots on the ground. What is much clearer is the fact that the Paris attacks have recast how the West views the Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS. The group has graduated from local bully to international terrorist syndicate faster than most expected. 

The attacks are “forcing us all to question the assumptions we made when we first started putting together the ISIS strategy which was: We have time,” said Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015, in a discussion Monday at the German Marshall Fund. 

The idea was that containing the Islamic State would take “at least three years,” he added. “The question we all must face is whether we’ve got three years.”

As a result, “I could see us dialing up the level of risk we’re willing to take,” Mr. Chollet said. 

Already, French airstrikes have hit Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital. Hollande's goal in coming to the United States is to knit together a robust international coalition for a war against the Islamic State. He will fly to Russia later this week. 

What the US role in such a coalition might look like is a matter of debate. 

On one hand, former Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey James Jeffrey, said US should be “far more aggressive” in its airstrikes. Moreover, the US should use ground troops to “take on major concentrations of ISIS forces, because I don’t think others can,” he told the German Marshall Fund gathering. Such forces will “mark our commitment to this battle.” 

But Chollet said the US has shown its commitment to the region with thousands of US boots on the ground in Iraq training local forces, as well as dozens of US special operations forces in the region. He said he could imagine increasing the number of US special operations forces to the 1,000-to-2,000 range.

The question remains “how close we will let them get to the fight [and] what sorts of risks are we willing to run.”

Obama has questioned what such moves could actually accomplish.

“Folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do,” he said. “But what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America ‘winning’ or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed.” 

Indeed, civilian lives are at stake, too, and their future could affect American security. Intensifying US efforts could involve “our willingness to risk more civilian casualties in our airstrikes,” Chollet said, noting “there are many airstrikes that weren’t taken because of our fear of civilian casualties.”

So far, US forces have gone to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. Last week, for example, US military pilots dropped hundreds of leaflets telling drivers, who are generally not affiliated with IS, to “get out of your trucks and run away” before bombing them.

There is a moral obligation to limit civilian casualties, but practical reasons, too. “If you do hit a set of oil trucks without alerting the drivers in the area, you’re going to create enemies for life,” said Mr. Jeffrey, who served in Turkey from 2008-10 and Iraq from 2010-12. 

The problem, he added, is that “we are hated in much of the Middle East by much of the population, and with or without us doing things on the ground, they’re going to look at those planes and assume that we’re deliberately trying to kill as many of their fellow Muslims as possible.” 

So risking more civilian casualties might not “generate many more problems than we have now,” he said. 

Besides, there is a law of proportionality, Jeffrey said. The Islamic State is terrorizing upwards of eight million innocent people in Iraq and Syria. “In the long run, proportionally you’re going to have a lot fewer civilians dying than you will in very carefully orchestrated air strikes.”

These are difficult questions for Obama. He has been deeply shaped “by the hand he inherited in 2009, and the sense that the US was on an unsustainable path in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Chollet. “He’s determined not to turn over to his successor, whomever he or she may be, a similar bad hand.”

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