May 28, 2015

CNAS Press Note: Confront ISIS But Don’t Get Trapped Again in Iraq

By Robert D. Kaplan

In response to vigorous debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq following ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi, Senior Fellow Robert D. Kaplan has written a new Press Note arguing that the United States must be certain not to get “trapped” in Iraq again.

The full Press Note is below:

The United States must significantly weaken ISIS without getting trapped again in Iraq. If U.S. troops are inserted to liberate Ramadi and other cities, what happens the day after that when there is no credible Iraqi government whose own troops can secure, hold, and rebuild those places? Therefore, thinking several steps ahead (as we must) means working with local forces, including Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribes, and Shiite militias, while the Pentagon uses creative ways to bolster the Iraq Army – if that is even possible. This strategy, unfortunately, enables Iran, but I see no other alternative. After all, if ISIS can permanently hold significant sections of Mesopotamia and Syria, it will then have the territorial safety it requires to theoretically plan and perhaps execute attacks against the United States from afar, as al Qaeda did from Afghanistan. 

Preventing ISIS from establishing itself comfortably in the region is a first priority; shrinking Iranian influence a second. The United States probably cannot do both without inserting significant levels of U.S. troops: Even if they are only special operations forces, limited in magnitude, the administration must be extremely careful not to have a sizable ground presence. Americans are still hated in the region, and caution and restraint have to be watchwords. The country faces challenges globally and therefore should try to avoid getting bogged down in any one place. I assume defense planners can find a sweet spot that features some more special forces, increasing aid to anti-ISIS forces in the region, continuing to negotiate with Iran, and not giving up on the Iraqi government – because it is the only one in Baghdad we have to work with. The Saudis and others are working hard on toppling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad: The key in Syria will be to avoid, if Assad falls, the emergence of a Sunni jihadist regime.

Mr. Kaplan is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9409.

  • Robert D. Kaplan

    Senior Fellow

    Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, originally joining the Center in March 2008. He is the bestselling author of fifteen books on fo...