Thirteen years after 9/11, Islamic militants have seized a state-sized territory in the heart of the Middle East, and the United States is struggling to determine how to respond. The two main approaches the United States has used thus far to combat extremists — large-scale, prolonged deployments of ground troops and pinprick drone strikes — do not effectively address the problem. Drone strikes alone can disrupt terrorist organizations, but cannot lay the foundations for political stability necessary to prevent their regrowth. Prolonged deployments of U.S. ground troops, on the other hand, require massive investment in terms of U.S. lives and dollars, and often still lead to uncertain results. It was less than three years ago, after all, that U.S. troops left Iraq. To leave U.S. forces on the ground engaged in internecine conflicts indefinitely is not a viable strategy. A new model is needed, one that not only disrupts terrorist organizations but builds up political and security architectures that can prevent their regrowth, and does so at a cost that is reasonable within the United States.
The beginnings of such a model can be seen in northern Iraq today with U.S. airpower buttressing local ground forces, giving them the added boost they need to overpower Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. Such a model carries risks, however, the seeds of which can already be seen. Shiite militias are said to be among the fighters on the ground in northern Iraq along with the Kurdish peshmerga, and reports from Iraq indicate tensions among militias who are vying for control of ground seized from ISIL. Backing anyone who is willing to fight IS may result in tactical victories, but will certainly lead to strategic ruin in the long run. Even the perception on the ground that the United States is acting with Iran as the air force for Shiite militias will only drive Sunnis further into ISIL’s arms, regardless of how U.S. leaders parse their actions. The United States must choose its partners carefully with the aim of empowering relatively moderate Sunni Iraqis and Syrians to build a bulwark against ISIL’s return.