- - Tuesday, April 26, 2016


The terror attacks in Paris of just five months ago brought to the fore the following question: Is it going to take the equivalent of the Paris bombings here before President Obama takes decisive action against the Islamic State? After the attacks in Brussels, the question is now more relevant. The president has yet to act decisively against the Islamic State. Why? We know where it is headquartered, we know where the centers of gravity are located that allow its continuance of terror, and we know more can be done to halt the Islamic State’s evil.

There have been some positive actions, but they are undercut by an obsession with avoiding “collateral damage.” A January attack on an Islamic State bank demonstrates the case. The outcome could have been much more effective if the organization’s entire banking enterprise was hit simultaneously. Many lucrative financial sites were targetable — but they were not hit due to unwarranted concerns about the possibility of unintentional civilian casualties. America’s enemies today are exploiting our paralyzing and excessive restraint to spread their terror. What can be done to reverse the tepid U.S. approach currently in place?

To start, put U.S. national security interests first. The current U.S.-led coalition strategy is to secure the sovereignty of Iraq before decisively dealing with the Islamic State in Syria. This is precisely backward. The core U.S. security interest in the region is to prevent the Islamic State a sanctuary to export terrorism —not to act as a surrogate for Iraq’s military.

Second, stop fighting the last war. The Islamic State is not an insurgency. It has all the elements of a state and it can be negated by attacking each of them. Defeating the Islamic State is not about winning hearts and minds. The hearts and minds counter-insurgency approach in Iraq and Afghanistan was a strategic failure. The sooner we acknowledge this fact, the sooner we can stop going down the same road, while expecting a different result — the definition of insanity.

Third, increase the current minuscule average number of six U.S. strikes per day against the Islamic State in Syria to a number adequate for, and focused on, rapidly crushing each of the elements that make up the Islamic State as a system.

Forth, stop applying a zero civilian casualty standard that far exceeds the standards of international law. That policy is backfiring — it is extending the time to secure military objectives, and allows more time for the Islamic State to commit genocide and other atrocities. Recent moves to balance casualty avoidance with mission objectives are welcome. Initiating a comprehensive, focused and strong air campaign against the Islamic state and adhering to the standards of international law are not mutually exclusive, as some apologists of the current approach have suggested.

Fifth, stop using the excuse that “it will take a long time.” The time dimension depends on the definition of what “it” is. If “it” is the resolution of the Shia-Sunni conflict, then yes, “it” will take a long time, but that is not the critical U.S. security interest to address. Eliminating the effectiveness of the Islamic State will only take as long as we want it to. Mr. Obama wants it to take at least until Jan 21, 2017. That is, perhaps, the biggest cause of the current anemic U.S. approach.

We just witnessed the 25th anniversary of the most successful use of U.S. force since World War II — the Desert Storm air campaign of 1991. It lasted 43 days. President George H.W. Bush and his military commanders formed a strategy, built a coalition, deployed forces, garnered U.N. backing, executed the strategy and accomplished its objectives by February 1991 — seven months from start to finish. It has now been almost three times as long since the first U.S. strikes against the Islamic State — more than 600 days. Yet, a comprehensive strategy is still lacking.

As the old saying goes, lead, follow or get out of the way. Mr. Obama has demonstrated he won’t lead. In the wake of attacks on European soil, NATO could take the lead of a transformed military campaign. Even a reluctant Mr. Obama might follow this approach. This alternative could reinvigorate the alliance, allowing Europe to reestablish its position on the international stage as a decisive and respected force. Failing that, only one option remains: the presidential election of 2016. It can’t come soon enough.

David A. Deptula, a retired U.S. Air Force general, is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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