No Safe Haven
By J.E. McCollough
If the US had known with certainty Al Qaeda was plotting the September 11th attacks a year before they happened, would we have attacked them in Afghanistan before their plot could manifest? Perhaps we didn’t know the details, but what if we knew Usama bin Laden was planning a massive attack on US soil. Would we, should we, have gone after him?
Obviously, these are rhetorical questions. Of course we would have, of course we should have, if we had known. But I’m not trying to re-hash the past, rather I’d like to use it to set the context for the situation we now face in Iraq and Syria.
We know, with certainty, the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham or ISIS) that has taken and is holding territory in Syria and Iraq intends to attack US soil. They’ve stated this intent in numerous videos and publications. We also know they have the capability; the IS has dozens if not hundreds of members who hold Western passports and with the capture of multiple banks in Iraq the IS is easily the wealthiest terrorist organization in history, having literally hundreds of millions of dollars in cash.
This is the threat the United States faces. A motivated, highly capable, well-resourced enemy. All it needs to begin planning and executing attacks on the US is time to focus, right now it is busy fighting the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their Iranian supporters.
Looking at the current situation in Iraq in this way it would make a lot sense to do whatever we can to destroy the Islamic State, to eliminate a clearly identified threat to the US homeland.
But here, of course, is where it gets complicated. The Islamic State is without question an enemy of the United States. But so are Syria and Iran. And while the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki used to be friendly to the US, given the lack of US influence with Maliki and the heavy involvement of Shia militias in Iraq’s governance, I think Baghdad could at best be described as simply ‘not actively hostile’ to the US.
So we have a situation where most of our enemies in the Middle East are fighting each other. The Iraqi Shia groups that killed and wounded thousands of Americans during the Iraq occupation are fighting against the Islamic State. Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group that blew up the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983 killing 241 American service members, is fighting for the Syrian government. Tehran has troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria to fight the IS and support their clients in Baghdad and Damascus.
The reality is, we don’t want anyone to win this fight that now spans both Iraq and Syria. Yes, it’s in the US’ interests to have a stable Middle East. Letting this IS-perpetrated conflict continue to expand, destabilizing the rest of the region isn’t an option, but we definitely want our enemies to continue to weaken each other.
What’s the solution for the United States, then?
We can’t actively fight on the side of the Iranians. While I’m comfortable dealing with our enemies in some cases, Iran is directly responsible for too many American deaths in Iraq and around the world. Militarily assisting their fighters and strategic goals, for me, is a non-starter.
But we also can’t allow the Islamic State to establish a safe haven that crosses borders. That threatens real allies like Jordan, Israel, the Kurds and Turkey. That threatens, eventually, US lives on US soil.
Destroying terrorist safe havens that threaten US soil was the entire purpose of the invasion of Afghanistan, now the longest war in US history.
It would be folly of the highest order to stand by and watch the heirs to the perpetrators of 9/11 create a new safe haven from which they could comfortably plot the next major attack on the United States.
By containment I mean mitigating the external impacts of the conflict as much as possible, while continuing to let our enemies kill each other. Just like firemen know when they have to stand back and let the structure fire burn, but still prevent it from jumping to nearby buildings.
By containment I mean surrounding the Islamic State with military bases. Establish bases in Jordan, re-establish in Iraq, establish in south-western Turkey, establish in the Kurdish-controlled region in northern Iraq. If the IS so much as steps a pinky toe outside the geographic bounds of the current conflict we should strike without regard to what country they happen to be in.
By containment I mean putting serious, unrelenting diplomatic pressure on Turkey and Saudi Arabia to assist with refugees and curtail or prevent support to the IS. Make it the highest priority. Threaten to cancel humanitarian or military aid, the delivery of weapon systems, trade deals, any kind of special favors. And then deliver on our threats if they don’t comply.
The State Department needs to forget about trying to broker peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, something not even remotely feasible at the moment, and focus on containing this much larger crisis. The Islamic State has proclaimed itself to be the leader of the Muslim world, so the US needs to apply pressure on Muslim countries worldwide to help solve the problem. Countries from Morocco to Indonesia need to assist in the refugee crisis so that countries bordering Iraq and Syria are not overwhelmed. They need to prevent their citizens from traveling to join the Islamic State. To allow US interdiction of supplies and supporters to the Islamic State, whether by law enforcement or Special Operations or drones or the US Navy.
The United States needs to contain the conflict, not jump into it. When our enemies have exhausted themselves killing each other, perhaps at times assisted by a US drone strike or Special Operations raid here and there, maybe then we can offer our help to any surviving civilians.
And this time, when the dust finally settles, we should maintain a strong military presence in the region indefinitely, ensuring no safe haven for those who would attack the United States can ever come into existence again.