Stopping the Islamic State without making matters worse

by Thomas Reese

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The actions of the so-called Islamic State have been so horrendous that they have garnered almost universal condemnation. It is difficult to find anyone who does not want to see them stopped. This provides both a challenge and an opportunity to U.S. foreign policy, but we must make sure that we do not simply make matters worse by repeating the mistakes of the past.

Much of the discussion of the Islamic State lacks nuance and a respect for the complexity of the political and religious situation. The focus has been on a military solution to the crisis. Those who want a quick solution say send in the U.S. military. Those who do not want U.S. casualties say we must train Iraqi troops to take on the Islamic State.

It is a wonder that anyone can make these arguments with a straight face. The U.S. military has not won a war since 1945. It fought to a stalemate in Korea; it lost in Vietnam; and Iraq and Afghanistan are in shambles with their futures still in doubt.

The U.S. experience of training foreign troops has been equally disastrous. Graduates of the School for the Americas, now known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation went on to support Latin dictators with horrendous human rights records. The South Vietnamese army evaporated as soon as we left. The Iraqi army abandoned Mosul to an invasion of pickup trucks. The Afghan army still cannot handle the Taliban.

How many decades does it take to train troops to defend their own families and cities? The Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban are able to train their people at low cost faster than we can kill them, but the U.S. military requires billions of dollars and decades to train people to defend themselves from attack. We must supply our allies with the most sophisticated equipment, while Islamic State troops capture slices of Iraq and Syria from the backs of pickup trucks.

The U.S. military spends like the New York Yankees and plays like the Chicago Cubs.

This does not mean that individual American soldiers are not dedicated and brave, it simply means that the military and civilian leadership in the Pentagon still calculates victory in terms of dead enemies and territory reclaimed. They continue to focus on winning battles while they lose the war. The cost has been thousands of U.S., Afghan, and Iraqi casualties, the alienation of the Muslim world, and billions of dollars blown up in futile attempts to kill every enemy.

The problem is that we continue to see terrorists and fanatics as a military problem rather than a political problem. I have no doubts that if we put thousands of U.S. troops back into Iraq and Syria, we will be able to take back the territory won by the Islamic State. The cost will be bloody. Civilians killed as collateral damage will quickly outnumber those directly killed by the Islamic State. Mosul will be totally destroyed as we "save it." The Iraqi army and its Shia militias will help us defeat the Islamic State, but the Sunni population will suffer and become more embittered.

What can the U.S. do?

First, increase aid dramatically to those taking care of refugees from Syria and Iraq. It is a scandal that we are quick to spend money on arms but slow to care for the victims of war.

Second, as Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have said, it is "licit" to use force to stop the unjust aggression by the Islamic State and to protect minorities and civilians from attack. Stopping the further expansion of the Islamic State is an essential first step. But, as the pope and bishops have emphasized, "the use of military force must be proportionate and discriminate, and employed within the framework of international and humanitarian law."

But the U.S. bishops are correct in saying, "While military action may be necessary, it is by no means sufficient to deal with this terrorist threat."

In a Feb. 23 letter to President Barack Obama, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., and Las Cruces, N.M., Bishop Oscar Cantú​ accurately describe the deeper causes of the conflict. "Political exclusion and economic desperation are manipulated by the self-declared Islamic State. In Syria and Iraq, they exploited the exclusion of Sunnis from governance. Inclusive governance and meaningful participation in political and economic life inoculate populations against the false promises of extremism."

The two bishops, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace respectively, acknowledge that the administration "has worked with Iraqi officials to encourage the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq that respects human rights and religious freedom for all." But this work is far from being a complete success.

It may be time to recognize Iraq as the failed state it is. The Kurds already have their independent territory and it is time to allow the Sunnis to have theirs. The Sunnis joined the fight against Al-Qaeda when they were promised greater autonomy, but that promise was broken and the result is the Islamic State.

If the U.S. thinks that a Shia-led government and military is the solution, then it has learned nothing in all these years of fighting in Iraq. When we try to leave again 10 years from now, we will be faced once again with another Sunni insurrection in Iraq.

The only people who can truly defeat the Islamic State are the Sunnis. But they will not take on the Islamic State if the result will be subjugation by a Shia-led national government. It will not be easy to win over the Sunni population again. They were lied to too many times. But no military solution will work that does not respect their legitimate aspirations for autonomy.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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A version of this story appeared in the March 27-April 9, 2015 print issue under the headline: While halting Islamic State, don't make matters worse.

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