Defeating ISIS Without American Troops

The below column was published in today's Salem News:

As I travel the campaign trail in the 6th District, I hear two grave concerns about the turmoil in the Middle East: the threat of ISIS and the danger of getting drawn into another ground war in Iraq. We want ISIS gone, but we don’t want U.S. ground troops to have to do it.


As a former Marine who served four tours of duty in Iraq, I believe there is a way we can defeat ISIS without putting more boots on the ground. 

First, ISIS is a serious threat to the national security of the United States, not just indirectly through the instability they are creating in the Middle East, but directly by killing Americans abroad and threatening to attack us here at home. The group is so evil it was excommunicated by al-Qaeda for being too extreme. 

As President Obama laid out in his address to the nation, U.S. policy should be clear and emphatic: We will defeat ISIS.

But, equally as important: We should not accomplish this victory with American ground troops.

In declaring that we will defeat ISIS, we reserve the decisions on the means and timeline for ourselves. 

ISIS now occupies a wide swath of territory from Syria into western and northern Iraq. While I agree with the president that we should be willing to pursue ISIS in Syria, there’s no clear framework for dealing with ISIS inside that war-torn country. 

The first order of business is defeating ISIS in Iraq. That is the job of the Iraqi army, not American ground troops. Iraq must be able to defend its own borders.

When ISIS began its dramatic expansion from Syria into Iraq, the Iraqi army crumbled, but it wasn’t simply overrun by ISIS — the Iraqi troops put down their weapons and went home because they had lost faith in Prime Minister Maliki’s sectarian government.

What the Iraqi army needs to do its job more than anything is not American military advisers or air strikes but a government they can trust to defend. Thus, the fundamental problem in Iraq is not military but political.

We built America’s largest embassy in the world to house U.S. political advisers to the Iraqi government, but it’s only half full.

A new prime minister is a promising step in the right direction, but I’d much rather see us sending political advisers to Iraq than military advisers. 

The Iraqi army outnumbers ISIS by at least 30 to 1, they have far superior training and equipment, and they have better logistics and supplies. Having worked with the Iraqi army myself, I know they are capable of defeating ISIS so long as they have faith in the government they are charged to protect.

American military support, in particular targeted air strikes, can help. But it must be the Iraqis who are leading the fight. Because the only long-term solution is a functioning Iraqi government with a military it can trust, we should condition further military support on serious political progress. 

We must act with urgency, but we must also act strategically. Many analysts believe ISIS will start to have the same problems that al-Qaeda found when they took over Western Iraq a few years ago: Iraqis quickly soured on their extremist laws and began to resent their suffocating occupation.

This doesn’t mean we can count on ISIS to go away on its own, but it does mean they are likely to have struggles consolidating their territorial gains before they can pursue their international ambitions.

Pursuing this path — tackling Iraq’s political problems first and tying any increased military aid to long-term political compromise by the Iraqi government — will both ensure the defeat of ISIS and the longer-term stability of Iraq.

It will also keep us out of another ground war in the Middle East.