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September 11, 2014

President Barack Obama’s new strategy for confronting the explosive growth of the ISIS militant movement in Iraq and Syria puts the United States “in a better place than we have been,” said General Michael Hayden, Atlantic Council board director and former CIA director. But it will involve more US troops deployed into the region than Obama’s September 10 speech indicated, he said.  Hayden spoke this morning in a conference call with Council members and journalists.



“I think the president ... did some sleight of hand here with regard to ‘no boots on the ground,’” Hayden said. “Actually right now we’ve got about 1,400 pairs of boots on the ground, and … we’re going to have Americans on the ground in harm’s way.” They will take on a “limited role, perhaps; we won’t have maneuver brigades in western Iraqi desert. But American ground forces are going to be involved in here and I would not be surprised if by Christmas we’re pushing about 5,000 GIs in and around the region supporting all of this.”

Obama’s citation of Yemen and Somalia as models for the fight against ISIS suggest that it will be a war of “indefinite duration but limited” scope, Hayden said.


Ricciardone: A Larger Problem

The Atlantic Council’s new Middle East director, Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, noted in the call that, even if the US somehow could achieve quickly the destruction of ISIS that the Obama administration seeks, the United States faces a larger problem “of historic, truly strategic consequence” in “the breakdown of legal order that underpinned stability in the region for more than three-quarters of a century since the end of the Ottoman Empire.”

As imperfect and undemocratic as many states in the region have been, the existence of functional governments in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Libya provided some governance and “an accountability of states,” said Ricciardone. “Much of that is gone across the region.” Ricciardone this month moved from his post as ambassador in Turkey to become director of the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

In the call, Barry Pavel, the Atlantic Council’s vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, noted four main parts to the President Obama’s strategy to “defeat and ultimately destroy” ISIS: 

  1. Increased and expanded airstrikes on ISIS and related targets;
  2. Increased support to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, as well as the Free Syrian Army and affiliated groups;
  3. Increased resources for homeland defense; and
  4. Increased humanitarian assistance to affected civilians in the conflict zone.


Limits of Air Power

Hayden said that, even as an Air Force general, he sees the utility of air power as sharply limited. “Reliance on airpower has all the attraction of casual sex,” he said. “It seems to offer gratification, but with very limited commitment. And so we need to be wary of the strategy that puts such an emphasis on airpower and airpower alone.”

As for supporting ground troops, the United States will have to rely on the Kurds mostly, and then “the next, most competent ground force…would be the Iraqi Army.” Still, Hayden said, it is hard to imagine Iraqi forces reconquering territory already taken by ISIS. And, he said, while the idea of empowering moderate Syrian rebel forces sounds good, there may not be a very capable Syrian moderate force left.

Ricciardone said problems are rising in the way that the US has framed the ISIS challenge. It has exaggerated ISIS’ “powers, standing, and what they’re capable of,” he said, which helps the group’s recruitment efforts. And putting the United States at the center of this problem “risks making these issues about us” and “relieves the people who should be bearing the burden.” The US goal should be to help other stakeholders on the issues and to define their and our purpose more broadly.

It is too early to tell what second- and third-order effects the president’s strategy will have. But Hayden, Ricciardone and several other Atlantic Council-related scholars broadly described Obama’s strategy as a step in the right direction, although not one that will “defeat” the group, as the president suggested.

“It’s a fine strategy for ‘contain and disrupt.‘ It’s not a strategy for ‘defeat’ by any means. If you want to defeat ISIS, you have to go all-in to Syria, which the president isn’t prepared to do,” Pavel told the New York Times.

Alex Ward is an assistant director at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Liz Harper is managing editor at the Atlantic Council.