Why ISIS Cannot Be Defeated by Putting US Boots on the Ground

American-troops-IraqSeemingly overnight, the terrorist organization ISIS established an illegitimate state spanning the borders of Iraq and Syria. Systematic human rights abuses and dramatic executions have drawn the world’s attention to the group; however, ISIS does not pose an immediate existential threat to the United States, begging the question: are there options other than putting US put boots on the ground to combat this problem?

In a debate at Brookings Institute, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn) explained why putting American troops on the ground to combat ISIS is not in the best interest of the United States. Murphy’s participation comes fresh off an op-ed in which he, Senator Heinrich (D-N.M), and Senator Schatz (D-Hawaii) outline their progressive foreign policy plan for America. The trio advocate for restraint as America contemplates military action across the globe and call for enhanced global partnerships, as well as the establishment of detailed strategic plans prior to any military action. At the Brookings debate and in line with his progressive foreign policy, Senator Murphy breaks down three key reasons why placing US troops on the ground to combat ISIS is not acceptable:

First, the United States has a poor record of training other military forces. For instance, the US has spent 10 years training the Iraqi military and providing weapons, yet when ISIS marched on Mosul, that same Iraqi force fled the scene, leaving the city to be easily overtaken. And let us not forget that failed training attempts do not come cheaply. It is estimated that the US spent over $26 billion training the Iraqi security services.

Second, hundreds of thousands of American troops may be able to subdue ISIS briefly, but it will create a multitude of other problems. Murphy calls a large American force “a calling card for ISIS as they are trying to recruit.” Once the US leaves the scene, ISIS supporters and sympathizers will remain on the ground, and their ability to attract radicals will intensify. The problem is not just military strength, but public image. Overcoming ISIS will require the US to engage in a battle for the hearts and minds of those being targeted for recruitment by ISIS, and this cannot be done with US troops battling in the streets of Iraq and Syria.

And finally, Murphy argues there are ways other than military force to advance American interests in the region. By focusing on economic growth and improvements in quality of life, the US can secure stability. According to Murphy, economic prosperity could also draw Sunni tribal leaders back towards the Iraqi central government, a crucial component in maintaining unity in an otherwise fractured country.

The debate also featured Michael Doran, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and a proponent of US ground troops entering the battle against ISIS. Doran believes placing American troops in Iraq and embedding them among local populations is the only way to defeat ISIS. His position relies upon the belief that the US must operate on the ground in order to secure allies in the fight against ISIS; however, Doran falsely assumes that US troops are guaranteed success once on the ground and that the potential for backlash is minimal. Uncertainty about US troop success against ISIS must be weighed heavily. It is not in the interest of the US to put American soldiers in harm’s way only to watch ISIS flourish once the US leaves.

Chris Murphy identified national security as the number one foreign policy priority for the United States. He indicated that the surest path towards lasting peace in Iraq and Syria involves the creation of a local force that will not increase disdain towards the US and can maintain a presence long after ISIS is defeated. Concerns about an ISIS flare up following the introduction of American troops into the battle are legitimate and must be preempted. The United States must also continue to pursue its multifaceted strategy of incorporating diplomacy and providing safeguards that ensure security on American soil. The best policy moving forward must incorporate regional forces and encourage them to overtake ISIS strongholds, thus destroying the group’s ability to exist.