The Pinprick President

Barack Obama needs to go to war with the Islamic State, or it will go to war with America.

Make no mistake, this is no pinprick. President Barack Obama's decision on Aug. 7 to authorize force in Iraq is a watershed moment for this administration. Or, rather, it should be. That's not to say it's a moment or a mission the president particularly enjoys. Indeed, his reluctance to engage was palpable from the first minutes of his speech, when he made his position clear: "As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq."

Well, another American war in Iraq is exactly what is going to happen, sooner or later. The president has already slowed the Islamic State's (IS) momentum with his strikes near Erbil, but it is not clear if this is a one-time response or the beginning of a campaign to first contain, then destroy the jihadist force. The sooner we begin such a campaign, the less complicated our involvement will be, the greater our chances of success, and the more likely IS's forces can be defeated before they tear apart the region completely -- and directly threaten America. 

The stakes in the struggle with IS are clear. As the president himself said in June, if the Islamic State is allowed a permanent foothold in the center of the Middle East, core American interests are at risk: protecting the region and ultimately America and the West from another wave of 9/11-like terror; keeping oil shipments flowing from the Persian Gulf; and protecting our allies and friends increasingly threatened by the jihadist advance -- the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Turkey, Jordan, Gulf allies, and Israel.

President Obama's strategy has three core elements: 1) counterterrorism, and specifically augmenting our campaign against al Qaeda to focus more on the Islamic State; 2) U.S. military actions to strike IS when its military crosses U.S. "red lines" -- which so far have been limited, officially, to specific humanitarian catastrophes or endangered American personnel, or possibly key infrastructure; and 3) the broader campaign to provide limited military and intelligence support both to a more inclusive Iraqi government that can undermine IS's appeal to Sunni Arabs and to the moderate Syrian resistance.

What President Obama has gotten right so far is the third element. The political transition now underway in Iraq is the anchor for any broader campaign to eradicate IS. The radical jihadists' rapid advance would not have been possible without support from a disaffected and often abused Iraqi Sunni Arab population; clearing IS out of those Sunni Arab areas will require a sophisticated counterinsurgency campaign as effective as the U.S. military's in 2007 to 2008, but without large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground. The nomination of a Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shiite politician, as prime minister-designate, and Nouri al-Maliki's resignation, are an important steps forward, and ones facilitated by the Obama administration.

But there are two problems with this strategy. Given Obama's ambivalent views on the efficacy of military force, and America's tortured history in Iraq, he downplays his strategy's second element: direct U.S. military actions. Despite the president's oft-stated belief that there is never any military solution to, well, almost anything, IS's advances into Kurdish and Shiite Arab areas of Iraq are not a political or social phenomenon but a military achievement. And one cannot confront a classic military strategy with diplomatic niceties.

The Islamic State's shocking success is a result of good tactics: To avoid major conflicts on all fronts, it seeks to neutralize one foe after another -- overrunning Syrian Army divisional and brigade bases a few weeks ago, then turning to the Kurdish forces in the north. The next target may be a major push to isolate Baghdad. (The resulting mayhem of which would be intentional, provoking Shiite militias and Iran, with the aim of triggering a wider Sunni-Shiite conflagration.) 

With each military success, IS becomes stronger, gains more territory and strategic resources (weapons stocks, dams, electrical generation capacity, oil fields, refineries, and transportation nodes are particularly targeted), and wins more adherents. Meanwhile, its opponents -- the "local boots on the ground" that President Obama has made clear are responsible for fighting and winning this war alone -- grow weaker and more demoralized. Thus the importance of airstrikes to stop IS advances and facilitate U.S. and allied countries' arming of the Peshmerga.

Air power has real limitations when applied in a counterinsurgency. But it can dramatically change the odds in favor of besieged allies on the ground when applied against an enemy like the Islamic State, which is advancing in motorized columns in open areas, without the protection or shelter afforded by a friendly population. We have seen air power succeed under similar circumstances in Libya in 2011, northern Iraq in 2003 and 1991, Kosovo in 1999, Bosnia in 1995, and even in Vietnam in 1972. 

But using this tool would require the president to broaden the rationale for bombing missions beyond simply protecting Americans or saving the beleaguered Yazidis in Sinjar. Indeed, to move the needle from a pinprick to something of lasting strategic value, the president must overcome his aversion to using force and realize that, to paraphrase his West Point speech this spring, some problems actually are nails that America's military can and should hammer.

The second problem with his strategy concerns the longer-term third element. Given that U.S. policy is to deny IS a foothold in the region, the Iraqi political morass must be improved enough to enable an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Maliki's resignation and Abadi's nomination are important first steps towards an effective, inclusive government that can win over Kurds and Sunni Arabs, and motivate a frustrated army. But, given the vagaries of Iraqi politics, these positive steps are only a beginning. 

Furthermore, there is IS's strength to contend with. This begins with its military prowess and ruthless rule over its conquered populations, but also includes its ideology -- specifically, its unique (even by al Qaeda standards) focus on a war to the death between Sunni and Shiite Islam. While President Obama's emphasis on regional diplomatic efforts to complement any counterinsurgency is on target, IS's appeal -- if not to Sunni governments, then to Sunni populations -- is a complicating factor.

In the case of small-scale, relatively isolated terrorist movements like that in the Philippines, any failure of local allies in combating them becomes something we regret but can live with, as the direct effect on U.S. vital interests is minimal. But given IS's clearly elucidated threat to America and its growing quasi-state presence, living with that problem is not acceptable. The United States cannot simply sit back and wait for Iraq to solve its political problems. The administration must coordinate rapidly and effectively with any and all potential allies in the struggle against IS, including arming and training the Peshmerga, Sunni tribes, moderate Syrian insurgents, and the Iraqi Army, by providing both intelligence and air power.

But it is not clear from either his announcements or actions whether President Obama is ready to expand his strategy to include much more robust military action against the Islamic State, or to truly partner with those willing to do the fighting on the ground against it. Apart from his own innate reluctance to use military force, his supporters cite an increasingly isolationist U.S. public opinion. The American people indeed are leery of new commitments, but their reluctance has largely been generated by bloody, inconclusive major land combat with murky goals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current intervention against the Islamic State is not what is being contemplated here, but rather air operations similar to those taken in the campaigns cited above, such as Kosovo and Bosnia, along with much stronger diplomatic, political, logistical, and advisory efforts.

Do military actions of this sort open the door to a "slippery slope" that could lead to new Iraqs and Vietnams? In theory, yes. But Barack Obama is the least likely president to make a mistake of this sort. Moreover, the reality doesn't equal the fear: Over scores of deployments and combat operations since 1945, the United States has rarely headed down the slippery slope. And let's be clear: The Iraq adventure under President George W. Bush was not a slippery slope but an intentional regime-change strategy gone wrong.

What the president thus must do is to convince first himself and then the American people that our key interests -- oil supply, protecting the homeland and allies from terrorism -- are at stake so long as the Islamic State is rampant. Americans need to understand that if the United States does not stop them, no one will.

The Obama administration just in the past few months has routinely conducted military operations against al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya -- without incurring the anger of the American public. Why should it not be equally aggressive against the most dangerous of these al Qaeda-inspired groups? If the president's answer is still that Job No. 1 is to avoid more Iraq debacles, then we will have much to answer for, not only today to the innocent people terrorized by the Islamic State, but tomorrow to Americans who will surely be terrorized by these jihadists if we do not stop them now.

Pool / Pool


Even Jihadists Love Robin Williams

I spent a year in Iraq fighting Islamic militants. Then one of them contacted me on Twitter to talk about how much he loved Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji.

Robin Williams died this week, and the world stopped to mourn. President Barack Obama said he had spent his life "touching every element of the human spirit." Steve Martin described him as a "mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul." And thousands of miles away, a jihadi who believes in the slaughter of apostates took to Twitter to praise Williams's movies. "[R]eally liked Mrs. Doubtfire & Jumanji," he wrote. "But I liked most of them."

Abdullah, who doesn't give his last name, is a 19-year-old who supports the goals of the Islamic militants who now control much of Iraq and Syria but has not yet picked up a weapon to fight on its behalf (God willing, he says, he will soon find a way of doing so). For now, his focus is to amplify Islamic State propaganda for the world to see. The banner on his Twitter feed is a masked jihadi waving the now-familiar black-and-white IS flag seen fluttering above conquered Iraqi cities like Mosul. Abdullah's bio says he's "harsh on kuffar," the derogatory Arabic term for nonbelievers and infidels, a category that, to ISIS, encompasses most of the world's population.

My entire feed on Monday night became a Robin Williams tribute. Many posted a video of his 2007 USO visit to Kuwait, where he was caught off guard by the sounding of the ceremonial flag lowering and recovered with his legendary improvisation. But one of my followers retweeted Abdullah discussing the death of Robin Williams, and how Jumanji was a cherished childhood memory of his. It was a strange moment at the time, since I was an Army infantryman who went to Iraq to help kill men in black who hoisted that same banner, and here Abdullah was, talking about a movie I wore out on home video in my parents' living room in Texas.

I tweeted a screenshot of the conversation, which overtook my feed with hundreds of retweets in minutes. Abdullah was discussing religion with another user, so I jumped in for a few tweets. But soon we turned to the canon of our generation's most gifted comedian, including his less-remembered films. "What about Death to Smoochy?" I asked him. "It was pretty strange but I liked it."

"Not so sure," he replied. "What's the story about? I may have seen it."

We tried to ignore the many trolls joining the mix. Many were flabbergasted that hard-line Islamists could also be real people who like things Westerners like. "You're tweeting with Evil tonight I see," a California woman said to me, pointing out that I was having a casual conversation with a guy who posts cute photos of sloths hours after tweeting photos of decapitated Kurdish fighters.

The Islamic State stands for the complete opposite of everything I value as an American and a citizen of the world. They're brutal. Barbaric. Sadistic, maybe. But Evil, with a capital E? Abdullah? How could someone who smiles at the mention of "bangarang" be evil?

Abdullah is protective of his identity, for obvious reasons. He told me in private messages that he's from Europe -- which explains how he had access to Robin Williams movies -- and used to box when he was a kid. He wants to join the fight in Syria and Iraq, but unspecified personal matters have gotten in the way. There will always be time for the fight anyway, since he hopes for a worldwide caliphate where nonbelievers must accept Islam, pay a tax, or convert.

So why was he talking to me, I asked, since I was a nonbeliever who would do none of those things?

"I mean, we hate disbelief but I see you're a cool guy," he said in a direct message.

I'll be sure to save that endorsement in case the Islamic State storms Northern Virginia.

This isn't the first time I was reminded that insurgents and their followers -- no matter how brutal and misguided -- are people, too. In 2007 my infantry unit in Baghdad and Diyala province was battling, among other groups, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, an Iraqi nationalist insurgency group. They tried to sneak off with the bodies of executed American contractors and ambushed us when we arrived. They fired sniper rifles from inside cars and cut into roads with concrete saws to lay massive bombs for our vehicles.

But when the 1920s turned on the more extreme al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and partnered with us, the uneasy alliance gave way to joint patrols. They became the Sons of Iraq. They wore masks and pointed out AQI positions. In this way they were more useful and necessary than incompetent Iraqi Army soldiers, whom our government spent billions to train and equip.

Back at the patrol base, the Sons of Iraq took a shining to a particularly goofy member of my platoon. "If we fight again, raise your hand so we don't kill you," the former insurgent said. We all laughed. They battled against us, and promised to again, but at that moment we shared the same air, along with the same worries about what was buried underneath the next intersection.

My public conversation with Abdullah, I realized, was an opportunity to discuss things besides great moments in comedy. I wanted to know if he had seen combat in the declared caliphate, since it's an experience we could share that some Americans would rather not discuss at dinner parties. He understood the disconnect I described. "Watched a documentary on VICE about treatment of war vets," he said, referring to a segment on Veterans Affairs' systemic failures to provide timely care to veterans. "You guys really could have it better." Even a guy who gleefully posts photos of military caskets thinks the United States could improve how it cares for veterans.

My friend Kate, also an Iraq veteran, joined the Twitter conversation, asking about mental health care and reintegration for jihadists. Abdullah suggested they are sent back home to face uncertain modes of care. It appears both sides struggle to identify the best methods to treat traumatized troops while juggling limited resources.

Perhaps the Islamic State would set up their own agency for caliphate veterans, I told Abdullah. I was mostly serious. The group has already established food inspection offices, repaired electrical grids, and beautified street medians in Raqqa, Syria. Call the future agency the Department of Jihadist Affairs. "I would find it highly plausible," Abdullah said.

By late Monday night and Tuesday, Abdullah was agitated over the attention from hostile tweeters and journalists. The website of British newspaper the Independent aggregated his tweets after a BBC journalist reached out to discuss Robin Williams. "Like, this is a joke, right?" Abdullah asked rhetorically. Others trolled him for movie recommendations while others questioned his legitimacy. He's a groupie, some postulated, unwilling to join the fight.

Abdullah might be little more than an impressionable kid. But it's clear he's a node in a sophisticated Islamic State public affairs operation that amplifies execution videos along with water restoration projects aimed at winning hearts and minds. Esquire says their action-oriented videos carry an "aesthetic rigor," and intelligence officials say the group has thousands of followers around the world who translate its messages into German, Indonesian, and Russian.

I've spent my adult life online, writing blog posts and talking on message boards with people all over the world. Finding common ground to talk about with an Islamist doesn't seem that strange, even if my platoon maneuvered on and killed IS's predecessors in Iraq. One Islamic State supporter made it known in broken English that jihadists aren't space aliens who only behead people. That's true. They also force women and children up on a mountain to die, and at some point in their lives, roll on the floor laughing when Mrs. Doubtfire pelts Pierce Brosnan with a lime.

Abdullah was perhaps the most flummoxed by all the attention. Is it such a stretch that one could support a brutal, murderous state but also be a movie fan? Art -- be it a painting or a sculpture or a Robin Williams stand-up bit about golf -- reflects existence back at us. It's a human compulsion to both seek it out and create it. When Williams went with the USO and cracked jokes for troops overseas, it was to distract from the reality that the soldiers and Marines were in a war zone and could be killed or maimed at any time.

My Twitter feed is mostly national security and foreign affairs news, so I see the kind of things Abdullah posts every day. Photos of dead IS fighters. Videos of Iraqi vehicles blown apart. I probably see the IS flag once every couple of hours in one story or another. I hope they are eradicated and don't extend their terror state another inch. "I'd have to fight you guys if the caliphate came here," I told Abdullah over private message. "Not personal though."

"Of course not. It's all about the country and justice all that," he replied. "We'll see, inshallah."

But if he ever picks up a rifle instead of a keyboard, I won't know if I'll see Abdullah in one of those photos, either waving a black banner triumphantly or lying on the ground, swollen from rigor mortis and under the boot of a Kurdish soldier. I won't know it because I haven't seen his face; Abdullah's profile picture is likely a stock photo used by many jihadists, or would-be jihadists. The photo is of a jihadi fighter. It's of some man dedicated to the cause, like Abdullah, riding toward a battle, or maybe away from one, with a shrouded face to acknowledge one thing: that the world doesn't see him as he sees himself.

Kevin Winter