With Friends Like These

On September 10, 2014, President Obama laid out American objectives in Iraq. The U.S. would work to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group that calls itself the Islamic State. This is a commendable objective, but no one has clearly articulated the means to achieve it. In the absence of a clear American strategy, Iran has filled the void, playing a growing role in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. The Obama administration has been at best ambiguous about Iranian involvement in the conflict. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has suggested that Iran may be playing a “positive” role against the Islamic State. This was also the leitmotif of Helene Cooper’s analysis in the New York Times yesterday. On a tactical, and perhaps even an operational level, this may be true, but from a strategic perspective, it is a serious blunder.

American and coalition forces have been willing to commit air power to the fight against the Islamic State, but this is not sufficient to defeat the organization. Current and retired generals have been quite clear on this point, and about the probable necessity of boots on the ground. The question on everyone’s minds is: Whose boots? The Iraqi and Syrian militaries have the will but not the capability to defeat the Islamic State; the U.S. has the capability but not the will. Having spent almost a decade fighting insurgents in Iraq, Americans have no appetite to relive that conflict. Arab states have supported operations against the Islamic State in the air but not on the ground. Turkey and the Kurds have been reluctant to carry out military operations beyond the defense of their own peoples and borders.

The only state with both the will and the capability to confront the Islamic State on the ground is Iran. The Islamic State is a militantly anti-Shi‘a organization. It has slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Shi‘a as it took control of Iraqi territory, and it has threatened to destroy holy Shi‘i shrines wherever it finds them. Iran, as a Shi‘i power, is averse to seeing the Islamic State operating close to its borders in neighboring Iraq and has shown a willingness to confront the organization militarily. Unlike the Iraqi army, Iran has considerable military, para-military, and intelligence capabilities. It can and does operate on the ground in Iraq. Thus, superficially, Iran and the U.S. appear to share a common interest in defeating the Islamic State.

Some have argued that this has led to tacit cooperation between U.S. air power and Iranian troops on the ground. In an early instance, when the Islamic State laid siege to the town of Amerli in August, some press reports indicated that Iranian forces were passing information to the Iraqis, who would then pass it to the U.S. military without specifying that it had come from Iranians. When the U.S. acted on such information, it was in essence providing close air support to Iranian boots on the ground. This combination of American air power and Iranian boots on the ground was effective; lifting the siege on Amerli proved a rare success early in the conflict against the Islamic State. The Obama administration has denied that coordination with the Iranians occurred, but some important voices—especially among realists, such as former Secretary of State James Baker—have suggested that the tacit cooperation that occurred between American air power and Iranian boots on the ground in Amerli could be the way forward. Yet, Amerli is not a Sunni Arab town. It is a Shi‘i Turkmen enclave. The tactics that worked there are not applicable to the rest of the mostly Sunni Arab regions held by the Islamic State. Any plan to use Iranian forces against the Islamic State more generally fails to take into account the political context that brought the Islamic State to power in Sunni Arab regions of Iraq in the first place. It would therefore be a deeply flawed strategy and would not likely achieve American objectives.

If the Islamic State were—as it is often depicted by senior U.S. officials—a militarily powerful but nihilist force with…

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