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Matney: Learning from the ghosts of the past in the fight against ISIS

Lucas Matney, Daily Columnist

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In the summer of 2002, in the face of the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered a pithy warning to President George Bush to step back and consider the consequences that the conflict could bring: “If you break it, you own it.”

Twelve years later, America has seen itself violently pulled back into its role of caretaker in the face of a foe that the Obama administration has confessed to have underestimated on multiple occasions. ISIS, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State, has undergone a meteoric rise over the summer, garnering tens of millions of dollars in new resources and tens of thousands of new fighters — reports of recruitment figures vary — in their continued quest to expand throughout all of Iraq and Syria. The United States has vainly attempted to evade full-out involvement in the conflict, but following recent ISIS actions, including the beheading of James Foley, an American freelance journalist and Northwestern graduate, avoidance is no longer an option.

The United States has already wagered countless air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and is just beginning to expand the attacks to their Syrian front, which is currently battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. As the conflict escalates, President Barack Obama is adamant that there will be no U.S. troops taking part in a ground invasion. This promise is likely to be an empty one, however, and as atrocities continue to be committed by ISIS, public opinion will shift and the President will be able to continue in his predecessors’ footsteps of deep military entanglement in Iraq.

We can and will destroy ISIS, but the manner in which we do so is critical. ISIS may be alarmingly well-financed, but its popularity should be seen as its main threat. The group thinks that by luring us into a ground war, they can turn the negative reactions from a public exceedingly wary of Western intervention into fierce loyalty and devotion, and they may be right. ISIS wants a very public battle: The executions of Foley and other Westerners were nothing short of recruitment videos to enlist other radical Muslims in their highly ambitious and murderous quest to establish a new Islamic Caliphate operating under the strict code of Sharia law. This is a genuine concern because the West, specifically the U.S., is no longer seen by Middle Easterners as some sort of intervening busybody. To many, we are now the clear enemy. In order for us to help return Iraq to some remnant of stability, we need to fix that reputation and in doing so, learn from our past missteps.

Combatting ISIS effectively will desperately require the U.S. to heighten efforts in again tackling the issue of training regional Iraqi forces, all while continuing to carry out a very deliberate, yet faceless campaign of targeted strikes from both manned aircrafts and drones on ISIS leadership and key choke points. Destroying ISIS will require ground troops from somewhere, but at this point, neighboring countries have more than enough incentive to take that responsibility into their own hands. Offering assistance to troops from these countries, like what we are unfortunately “indirectly” now doing for Assad’s forces in Syria, is a strategy we are likely to continue to employ.

These strategies for removing ISIS will not be enough to establish stability for the country unless major Iraqi government restructuring can be undergone to reduce incompetence and sectarian one-sidedness. This is a task that the next U.S. administration will likely inherit and one that significant energy and resources will have to be put toward.

America, it seems, whether boots hit the ground or not, may be back in Iraq for the long haul. How we engineer the fight to take apart ISIS can help determine how we put the country back together. ISIS will come and go, but the destitution and frustration that so quickly facilitated its meteoric rise in the Middle East will survive and worsen as long as the West refuses to take a more proactive approach in bringing about stability in the region.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at lucasmatney2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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