No Western politician wants to commit forces to Iraq right now. The world has demonstrated an amazingly high tolerance for terrorism and bloodshed in the country. And the current leadership is showing every sign of not being up to the task of defending itself . But with ISIS exploding into a massively resourced powerhouse the situation in Iraq can not be ignored. At least not safely. They've had an unprecedented free run on Iraq but their spectacular success has also vaulted them to the top of the threat list.
Political and sectarian conflicts in Iraq are not our fight . However, any military action, if taken, will not be driven by an abstract ideological opposition to terrorism or allegiance to Iraq but rather out of absolute sheer unavoidable necessity. That will not make it any more palatable, for sure. Any action will undoubtedly be incredibly unpopular - as will this blog post. But much of the world has an interest in ensuring that the most deranged and violent force on the planet does not seize permanent control of ten percent of the world's oil reserves, vast caches of weapons, and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. If the ISIS rampage continues, and if they move on Baghdad, it just might force a lot of very reluctant hands. I would love to shrug this off as someone else's problem but it is not. ISIS simply can not be allowed to make these kinds of advances.
That being said, a repeat of the 2003 invasion isn't necessary here. Neither is an intervention on the scale we saw in Libya. What the United States can do is provide very limited air/drone support, intelligence support, diplomatic support, and coordination with the regional teams who would actually have boots on the ground. Assorted tools from the covert war playbook would likely be enough to make life difficult for ISIS. And frankly, that is all that the United States can, or should, do. We do not need to eradicate them in bloody urban combat or commit massive development resources to a dysfunctional Iraqi government. However, we do need to find a way to check the momentum of a rapidly expanding threat before it becomes an exponentially bigger problem. All military options are ugly, and far from a permanent solution, but engaging ISIS quickly might stave off an absolute collapse of the country.
My bet is that Iraq will receive significant assistance from the U.S. and other partners in the coming days (whether we own up to that or not). I hope that we do so in exchange for real concessions on their part but I do not see how it can be avoided either way. I suspect the nature of the support will result in ISIS being slapped around and slowed but not defeated. The group is here to stay, like the chronic disease that is al-Qaeda central, and it will require maintenance to keep it in check. The sooner we start, the better.
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– John Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002. He is also the host of the national security and technology podcast Covert Contact.