Be honest: ISIS fight will be a long one

Story highlights

  • ISIS has taken control of Ramadi, capital of the Iraqi province of Anbar
  • Brian Fishman: Conflict in Iraq and Syria is grounded in political dysfunction

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow with the International Security Program at the New America Foundation. Follow him @brianfishman. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Despite months of an American-led bombing campaign, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has conquered the Iraqi city of Ramadi. It is a major setback, and it should compel policymakers to assess whether our strategy -- which in the near term boils down to containing and disrupting ISIS while we bolster stable governance in Iraq -- is working. What it should not do is prompt half-baked calls for inserting more American troops into Iraq.

The current campaign is far from perfect, but Americans should be deeply suspicious of politicians promising quick, simple military solutions to the ISIS problem. Unfortunately, that is exactly what seems to be happening.
On Wednesday, former New York Gov. George Pataki argued for a more aggressive military posture against ISIS, but explained that he does not "want to see us putting in a million soldiers, spend 10 years, a trillion dollars, trying to create a democracy ... but send in troops, destroy their training centers, destroy their recruitment centers."
    It is not exactly clear what Pataki meant by this, although on the surface, it may seem like a reasonable middle ground: a more aggressive military posture, but without the grandiose political goals that were the hallmark of the first invasion of Iraq. The trouble is that although that sounds good, framing the possibilities like this creates an option that is not actually viable.
    A relatively minor expansion of the military mission in Iraq will not lead to the defeat of ISIS. What it is likely to mean, though, is that Americans get killed. And it is also a recipe for mission creep toward a larger, longer-term military commitment.
    The United States has the military power to trounce ISIS on the battlefield, but we should only do so with the clear-eyed acknowledgment that it is likely to be a long, dirty, expensive fight.
    During "the surge" of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007, the United States had around 150,000 Americans on the ground to fight ISIS' predecessor and convince Iraqi Sunnis to abandon the group, which then called itself the Islamic State of Iraq. But while the Islamic State of Iraq -- itself previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq -- was thrown on the defensive, three years later it still had 800 members and was one of the most powerful terrorist groups on the planet. Five years later, it renamed itself ISIS and was back on offense, largely because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on Iraqi Sunnis so hard that many who had abandoned the Islamic State of Iraq rushed back into the arms of ISIS.
    The current ISIS is significantly stronger than the Islamic State of Iraq was in 2007: It has more soldiers, is better organized and operates in a much larger area on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. It took 150,000 Americans to push the Islamic State of Iraq into a corner in 2007; how many will it require today?
    The United States should not take any options off the table for dealing with what has grown into an extremely dangerous organization -- including large-scale military operations. But no option will bring long-term security without more political stability in both Iraq and Syria. We have seen what happens when a military solution is not backed with a comprehensive (which means sustainable) political strategy: it is called ISIS, and we are dealing with it today.
    Ultimately, whatever course we choose for confronting ISIS, the American people need to be in it for the long-haul. A big part of the failure with the war in Iraq is that Americans were promised a relatively easy fight, yet the war dragged on and on -- the war in Iraq was not the fight that Americans signed up for.
    Political leaders need to learn from that experience: Americans will not put up with a bait and switch. That is a recipe for expensive failure. Of course, Americans do not necessarily have to agree on the best method to fight ISIS. But what we must understand about the conflict raging in Iraq and Syria is that it is grounded in political dysfunction and will take a long time to fix.
    So, as we head into campaign season, our political leaders, rather than making empty promises of short-term fixes, ought to be focused on steeling the American people for that longer effort. Hopefully voters, whether Democratic, Republican, or independent, will reward candidates who do.