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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, How to Resolve the ISIS Crisis

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Last Tuesday night, President Obama gave his final State of the (Dis)Union address. It was clearly meant to sweep Donald Trump preemptively into the dustbin of history. In case you hadn't noticed, there's no need to "make America great again." From environmental achievements to less than $2 gas at the pump, job creation to military triumphalism, things simply could not be greater right now. American decline? An idle rumor. ("Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction.") American weakness? A fantasy. In his Disneyesque vision of a country aglow, the president even managed to make his ongoing campaign against the Islamic State sound upbeat and his approach to defeating it little short of an antiwar statement. In a perfectly reasonable fashion, for instance, he suggested that, "as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence."

Resisting 2016 campaign proposals that range from the saturation bombing of civilians ("our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians") to establishing no-fly zones and sending in U.S. forces to take the Islamic State's "capital," Raqqa , Obama's position is essentially: more of the same -- more planes, more drones, more bombs, more missiles, more "coalitions," more "man-hunting," and more destruction. That's what now passes for an antiwar position in Washington. To steal a line from today's TomDispatch author, what could possibly go wrong with such a plan -- especially when you're talking about the country that, as the president proudly reminded us, spends "more on our military than the next eight nations combined" and whose troops "are the finest fighting force in the history of the world"? (Take that Attila the Hun and crew, Genghis Khan and company, you Roman legionnaires, and all those other pathetic fighting forces that preceded us!)

Mind you, American presidents have been stuck on that formulation for at least a decade or more, which might seem strange when talking about a military that, since its last significant victory in World War II, hasn't won much of anything against any force that offered it serious opposition, no matter how lightly armed or informally trained. It's a military that, since 9/11, has proven incapable of effectively building allied armies in the Greater Middle East and has stumbled from one disaster to another in the region.

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Despite this, the two poles of debate in Washington remain, militarily speaking, more of the same or staggeringly more of the same. Under the circumstances, we at TomDispatch decided to ask former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren what a third option might look like when it came to Washington's Middle Eastern policy and the Islamic State. What, we wondered, would less of the same look like or, to go directly over a cliff, something else entirely? Here's his answer. Tom

You Won't Like It, But Here's the Answer to ISIS
Giving Advice to a Presidential Candidate Who Wants to "Do Something"
By Peter Van Buren

How can we stop the Islamic State?

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Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: "Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!" What would you say?

What Hasn't Worked

You'd need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn't worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism -- the Islamic State being just the latest flavor -- have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)

Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else's boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don't "coalition" of "allies" to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.

Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but -- as Obama administration officials often emphasize -- this is a "long war." The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.

How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi "a victory in the worst possible sense." Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains "On to Mosul!"

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Similar "successes" have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq's Saddam Hussein or Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.

If your candidate needs a what-hasn't-worked summary statement, it's simple: everything.

How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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