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February 26, 2015
How would the United States respond if the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) were to either take control of several Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad or conduct a major terrorist attack on the al-Asad airbase in Iraq where US personnel are based?

Neither development would spur the United States to draw down its presence in the region or overhaul its current approach, according to participants in a war game conducted by the Atlantic Council on February 25.

This response would be grounded in the realities of domestic politics as well as the challenge of balancing the interests of allies and partners, especially those in the region.

Would ISIS’ gains on the ground “move [the United States] off the relatively middle ground version of containment?” Gideon Rose, Editor of Foreign Affairs, asked the war game panel he moderated at the Atlantic Council on February 26.

Describing the US team’s reaction as “middle ground plus,” Fred Kempe, Atlantic Council President and CEO, said the fact that “no one wanted to withdraw” was a reaction to the real-life experience of the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and a growing understanding of the larger threat posed by ISIS.

“Instead of what would be a temptation, which is dozens of Americans killed and therefore lets strike out and do something that makes us all feel good, there was more thought about what kind of military action would actually strengthen the network of ISIS rather than weaken it, and what can we do that would actually put us in a position where we are not quite as reactive as we’ve been before, but we can … be a little more proactive,” said Kempe, who was on the Blue Team that represented the United States.

The vulnerability of the Iraqi government and the resolve of its allies were key areas of concern for the US side.

“It’s rarely a single event that gets at the resolve to either cut and run or double down,” said retired Gen James Cartwright, the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It would be difficult to agree on an action that would “underpin, in a positive way, the resolve of the coalition,” said Cartwright, who was on the Blue Team.  

The Europeans in the war game were disappointed “that the United States was not treating this with utmost urgency,” said Bilal Y. Saab, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“Everybody was looking for US leadership, everybody was looking for US clarity on intentions, and they couldn’t find it,” added Saab who, as White Team member, observed and coordinated the discussions within the Red Team, which represented ISIS.

Decisions were further complicated by the fact that both sides — the US and its allies on one side and ISIS on the other — were confident that the other would eventually lose.

“There was a very high level of confidence on the part of Team ISIS that regardless of what the United States is going to do, they had options, that time was on their side,” said Julianne Smith, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security, who was on the Red Team.

Airstrikes by the US and its allies have disrupted ISIS’ logistics and communications lines, but the terrorists didn’t make any assumptions about the US putting up to 200,000 troops on the battlefield and felt they could cope with an uptick in kinetic activity, she added.

“Throughout the conversation, the word was, in essence, ‘We’ll wait this out’ … ‘We’re going to play the long game here,’” Smith said.

While the US side turned to its traditional allies, Smith referred to the “800-pound-gorilla in the room — the Syrians, Iranians, and Russians saying, ‘You might want to think twice about how you look at us. It seems like we now need to be in the partner and ally category.’”

US President Barack Obama in September pledged to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.

The US and its allies are currently preparing for a spring offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS. However, such an operation is unlikely to tip the scales in the war.

“There was absolutely nothing the United States would do that would actually defeat ISIS. Even boots on the ground would not defeat ISIS,” Saab said of the war game.

“We’re talking here about an ideology. Clearly ISIS is a symptom of a much broader problem,” he added.

Kempe said US policy thus far has been long on tactics, but short on strategy.

“You’re not going to summon domestic support over the long term unless you can actually tell the American people, ‘This is our strategy,’” he added.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.