By Claude Salhani
US President Donald Trump has reiterated his intent to go after the Islamic State (ISIS) and eradicate the jihadi terror organisation, which has taken over large regions of Iraq and Syria and claimed responsibility for many vicious attacks in the West.
“We defended the borders of other nations while ignoring our own,” Trump said February 28th in opening remarks to a joint session of the US Congress. “We will shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe and keep those out who will do us harm.”
To that end — at least in part — the US president said he would increase by $54 billion the budget devoted to the US Defense Department. This would be the largest increase in military spending in the country’s history.
However, anyone vaguely familiar with the issue at hand knows that much more than pure military force and oodles of dollars are needed to defeat ISIS, or, as Trump calls it, “radical Islamic terrorism” — a phrase his national security adviser H.R. McMaster suggested the president not use.
For the United States, the bad news is that the funds that are going to be allocated to the Pentagon mean cuts in other government expenses. As Trump won’t likely propose raising taxes, this means that the added funds for the military will come from other areas, such as education, public broadcasting, the arts and, very possibly, the US State Department.
This comes at a time when the United States needs to bolster its diplomacy rather than flex its military muscle. Trump is reported to have received proposals from the Pentagon regarding ISIS.
If the United States launches an all-out war to finish ISIS to “remove this vile evil from the planet”, as Trump said, a US-led alliance will need to destroy ISIS not only militarily but also tackle its ideology. Washington will need an experienced corps of diplomats — specialists in their regions — because the fight against ISIS will require astute tacticians to work behind the scenes in the corridors of power.
For the war against ISIS to be successful, the United States and its allies must have an iron-clad plan. The United States will need to establish a sort of Marshall Plan and not to leave a void that would benefit those who wish to see America fail.
The war to eradicate ISIS cannot be fought on the military front alone. The United States must consider the effects a full attack will have in the Arab world and particularly on the youth in cities where many are idle due to lack of jobs, making them easy recruitment targets for the jihadists.
Both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush understood the need to have a firm coalition lined up before going into battle against Saddam Hussein. Despite the United States’ far superior military force, with troops better-trained, better-equipped and having access to better intelligence, they made great efforts to recruit Arab countries into coalitions to fight Saddam.
Trump needs to plan carefully and strategically for the post-combat phase of the operation. The errors committed in Iraq during the first few days of the US occupation must not be repeated in the battle to defeat ISIS. This offensive needs to happen in coordination with friendly governments in the region and the United States should have a plan that can be immediately implemented in areas liberated from the jihadists.
While the United States will play a central role, it must not appear as though the mission was entirely developed in Washington. The challenge is identifying which countries or groups have their own agendas. For example, while Kurdish forces should be part of the US-led alliance as they have had success fighting ISIS, getting them and Turkey on the same side will be a challenge.
So, too, will convincing predominantly Sunni Arab countries to stop their support of jihadist groups because they see those groups as natural allies against rising Shia influences in the region. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be the battle to change the education system in countries where the curriculum includes teaching the children how to hate.