An offshoot of al-Qaeda, ISIL have cut a swath through the Iraqi state and established a brutal, albeit patchy, regime on an area the size of Belgium. And with reports of hundreds of women kidnapped and others being buried alive, the compulsion to act is self-evident.
On the face of it, ISIL is an ideal enemy for Western policy makers; at least from a PR point of view. ISIL use black flags, are generally faceless, have a catchy name, are far away enough to be alien and thus allow Western audiences sufficient emotional detachment to cheer their fiery deaths, but they’re just close enough to instil a sense of peril. And yet our response has been one of procrastination, dithering and tokenism.
Iraq has become a by-word for misguided military adventures that turn into quagmires and money-pits. The West and particularly America have grown weary of pouring blood and treasure into lost causes, with the recipient populations oscillating between ingratitude and outright hostility. For the US national security community, Iraq has all too many similarities with the ignominious end to the Vietnam War. Just as in Iraq, US forces in Vietnam left behind vast stocks of advanced weaponry and a large US trained army, and as in Iraq, the government of South Vietnam was supported by the most of the international community, but detested by swaths of the population. The façade of Iraq and South Vietnam were those of nation building success stories, but both soon crumbled as ISIL and the Viet Cong scythed through the US trained and equipped government forces with embarrassing ease.
US action is also stunted by the scale of the ISIL threat. The group controls not only areas in northern Iraq, but also Syria. American planners know that their military leviathan can’t be unleashed in Iraq without being drawn irresistibly into Syria, the same Syria that called Obama’s bluff and deployed chemical weapons in spite of the now infamous ‘red line’. For US forces to then be fighting alongside Assad’s army (and Hezbollah irregulars) as de facto allies would be too much even for the coldest Realpolitik strategists. And this is of course assuming that US forces could roll into Syria without Russian intervention.
Further complicating US and Western involvement is the lack of an end game. How will policy makers decide they’ve done enough? ISIL aren’t going to sign a peace treaty, and there’s no capital city or evil lair whose seizure will mark the end of hostilities. The ISIL threat will only be contained when Iraqi and Syrian governments re-established their authority across the entirety of their countries, which isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Thus even the current ‘limited’ air strikes could go on for years to come.
Just as in Afghanistan, an exasperated US is having to prop up a government it would love to ditch, but can’t because the alternatives are chaos or hardline Islamists. So unpopular is the Iraqi government that in many areas ISIL have been welcomed by the locals, being seen as less corrupt and thuggish than security forces loyal to Shia dominated Baghdad. Ultimately, Iraq needs to solve this problem itself. Help from the outside is required, but the greater the external assistance, the more enfeebled the Iraqi state appears in the eyes of its citizens.
There’s also the personal factor to consider. Obama and Biden campaigned on a ticket of getting out of Iraq quickly. This was framed as a juxtaposition to a warmongering Mitt Romney warned on the dangers of premature withdrawal (no sniggering at the back) and who prophetically warned of the continuing danger of Russia a geopolitical rival. The re-introduction of a sizable US force in Iraq would be a gift to the ‘we told you so’ Republican camp, and would also be another nail in the coffin of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
If America has few options in Iraq, Europe has even less. Decades of whittling defence budgets has left most European militaries little more than uniformed pension funds. Britain and France could fly sorties, but neither has the resources or the political stomach to commit ground forces in the sort of numbers that would be needed. Even humanitarian missions would strain logistics and divert resources from the British in Afghanistan and the French in West Africa. Add the institutional inertia of the Arab League, the lethargy of the United Nations, and the mutual suspicion of the Kurds and Iraqi national army, and ISIL are likely to have a free run for a while yet.