The Sunday Magazine

Is the West's strategy against ISIS working?

Canada's Defence Minister Jason Kenney says the West's military strategy against ISIS is working. Andrew Bacevich, a retired Colonel in the United States Army, disagrees.
In this June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group, slogans as they carry the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul. (Credit: AP Photo)

A year ago this month, the world started taking the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) very seriously as no mere al-Qaeda offshoot, but as a grave security threat to the Middle East and beyond. On June 10, 2014, ISIS overpowered Iraqi troops in Iraq's second-biggest city, Mosul. They've been running the city ever since.

The US-led war against ISIS has been full of successes and failures since it started last fall, but political leaders, generals, military analysts and foreign affairs experts alike were taken aback by the fall of another major Iraqi city, Ramadi, last month in a stunning failure of the Iraqi army to hold its ground; instead, the army fled the city, putting up little resistance. It was a turn of events that led to widespread questioning not just about the progress of the anti-ISIS campaign, but about whether the West's strategy needs a thorough rethink. It led Michael Enright to ask Canada's Minister of National Defence, Jason Kenney, what we've gained at all in the fight against ISIS.

"What we've gained first of all is not having ISIS dominate all of Iraq," Kenney replied. "Since the international coalition began its operations against ISIS last October, through aerial strikes and ground training, ISIS's progress or gains in Iraq were largely stopped, and they've lost about 25 to 30 percent of the territory they controlled last September.

"Obviously, there have been recent setbacks in Ramadi and elsewhere, but in any military campaign, you are not going to expect one straight line to the objective. There are always going to be gains and losses, but fundamentally, we've at least contained this organization and degraded its capabilities."

Kenney said that while Canada's armed forces will still conduct air strikes and provide staff to advise and assist Kurdish peshmerga fighters, the Conservative government will not expand our role in Iraq to include ground troops. He said that if ISIS is to be defeated, it will require Iraqi ground troops to take the battle to ISIS; those Canadian air strikes are done in support of Iraq's armed forces, who are being trained by the US.

Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University, agrees that the war must be won on the ground and that the fighting on the ground must be done by forces from the region, but he doesn't see the Iraqi army as being up to the job. "I have very little faith at this point that an Iraqi is going to fight," Bacevich told Michael Enright. "When we think about creating an army, there are two elements. The first element is inculcating the skills necessary to fight. And I think the United States can do a pretty good job of conveying those skills. But the second requirement of an effective army is will - to have soldiers who are willing to fight, who are willing to die for a cause, for a country. And there, it seems to me, as people from outside the Islamic world, our ability to inculcate the will to fight is very, very limited.

"But there are other countries in the region that are as eager as we are to bring about the demise of ISIS, and whether one likes it or not, one such country is Iran. One of the unintended consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq was to empower the Iranians. Whether we approve of their policies or not, they are once again a player in the politics of the Persian Gulf, and as a player, we have a common interest with Iran in trying to destroy ISIS."

Bacevich went on to suggest that the West's Middle Eastern entire strategy hasn't been working and that the West's military presence in the region has been entirely counterproductive. "We can defeat ISIS militarily, but it doesn't lie within the West's power to impose our vision of what life is like on the Islamic world, and if we try to impose it on them militarily, it will only increase their resistance to the West. Western military intervention exacerbates the problem rather than providing a solution."


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