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Fighting the Wrong War on ISIS

An early intervention by several thousand elite Western troops would have allowed the allies to quickly gain the upper hand against ISIS, a backward force lacking heavy arms, tanks, planes, and discipline, and that was dug into the cities it had captured. ISIS would have been quickly crushed. Fewer lives would have been lost, there would have been less destruction, and subject populations would have been liberated earlier. In a word, the Western Special Forces could indeed have done things better, faster, and at a lower human cost than the local forces.

Which raises several questions.

– What purpose might have been served by delaying a serious intervention for three years, while leaving ISIS time to prepare, to protect its rear, and to plan its clandestine future? One exculpatory hypothesis goes as follows: Instead of intervening right away, Western strategists chose to allow thousands of ISIS recruits from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere to flock to the caliphate, the better to eradicate them in one fell swoop. But it’s hard to put much stock in this theory. No such wait-and-see strategy surrounded the intervention against Gaddafi in Libya.

– What is the use of training and maintaining at exorbitant cost thousands of elite soldiers within the three largest Western armies—American, British, and French—if they are not to be used, and if less-skilled proxy fighters are to be used in their stead?

– Has the death in combat of Western troops—even professional soldiers—become so taboo as to justify falling back on proxies, veritable replacement armies to which we subcontract wars that we are no longer willing to fight?

With these questions in mind, here are some measures of the esteem in which the West holds the proxies:

1. Once Mosul was retaken and the war about to be won, the West condemned the Iraqi Kurds’ referendum on independence and allowed Iraqi-Iranian militias to wrest Kirkuk and other disputed territory from the peshmerga forces that just days before had been so highly praised for standing alone against ISIS for three years.

2. As soon as Raqqa was liberated by the YPJ, Trump announced the withdrawal from Syria of 2,000 members of the U.S. Special Forces, leaving Rojava at the mercy of the Turks and Bashar Assad.

3. The war won, France refused the repatriation of French nationals who had fought with ISIS for prosecution in France, and, while deploring the prospect that the death penalty, which France rejects, might be applied to them, had no scruples about handing the hot potato to the Kurds in Syria and to Iraqi “justice.”

Thanks proxies. See you soon; best of luck in the meantime!

Donald Trump had just joined the likes of Daladier, Chamberlain, and other appeasers in the black book of betrayal of vulnerable people. The same man who lauded the valor of Kurdish fighters had decided, against the advice of America’s military and diplomatic officials (notably Defense Secretary James Mattis and special diplomatic envoy Brett McGurk, who resigned over the matter), to pull out the American soldiers who were safeguarding northern Syria against Erdogan’s Turkey and Bashar Assad. Following Obama’s failure — and after the abandonment of Iraqi Kurdistan by its Western allies (who were guilty of having voted for independence in September 2016)—this threat of American withdrawal and its nonreplacement with an equivalent European force looked a lot like a fresh retreat by the West.

In the face of the widespread Western inclination toward moral, political, and military retreat from distant lands beset by barbarians, what hope remains for Americans and Europeans who have not given up on universal values and still believe in internationalism? What uses can and should be made of the power and the forces that we still possess? How vigilant must we be—and against what new dangers?

We owe it to ourselves, to the Kurds, to other like-minded friends and allies—and to the forgotten peoples of Darfur, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel—to answer these questions.

Source: excerpts published in Tablet, ”Two years on, the time has come for a moral assessment of our military strategy in the Middle East by Gilles Hertzog”. Translated from French