As President Obama prepares to make his case about the necessity of confronting the Islamic State – a fundamentalist self-designated “caliphate” that now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria – including the need for further US military strikes, there are key questions he must answer for the American people and for Pentagon officials who must carry out the strategy. Here are the Top 3:
By Anna Mulrine
1.Why is the Islamic State a threat to US national security?
“This is the most important thing the president needs to lay out for the American people,” argues retired Col. Peter Mansoor, former executive officer to retired Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and now an associate professor of military history at The Ohio State University. “He needs to make it clear that IS is every bit as deadly, and perhaps even more deadly than Al Qaeda, and needs to be confronted before they start attacking us.”
Defense analysts debate the capacity of IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL, to carry out a terrorist attack on US soil – the risk seems far greater for Europe than for American on this front, they note, with some 2,000 Westerners now believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq. But it is clear, too, they add, that IS is ably training some fierce foreign fighters and sewing instability in the region.
“ISIL’s ability to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West is currently limited,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “Left unchecked, however, that capability is likely to grow and present a much more direct threat to the homeland.”
Recent polls show that Americans are more amenable to the idea of US intervention in the region than they have been in some time: a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Wednesday finds that almost two-thirds of Americans believe it is in the nation’s interest to confront IS; 13 percent said that it was not.
Who’s going to help with this job?
America’s ability to put together a coalition to help take on IS will be key to making the operations more palatable to the American public, and to Mr. Obama himself, who has vowed to never again go it alone when it comes to confronting a threat that is equally palpable to our close allies.
The question is Obama’s capacity for “leading from behind,” as with US engagements in Libya, or whether the US will once again nominate itself for the chief role in military operations.
Eight nations have stepped up so far to provide aid and arms to Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting IS in Iraq, including Albania, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, and the UK.
But how willing these nations will be to enter into operations in Syria, given their own political constraints on the home front, remains to be seen – along with whether neighbors such as Turkey and Jordan will step up, too.
Will US military operations include boots on the ground in Syria?
Obama has promised that there will be “no boots on the ground,” inspiring one political cartoon, widely circulated in the halls of the Pentagon, showing a US soldier taking off his combat boots and putting on golf shoes before heading to Syria.
There’s a good chance Obama will keep his speech points broad-brush.
“I don’t think he has to get into the specifics at this point,” says Colonel Mansoor. “He’ll want to keep the strategy as general as possible, while outlining its basic contours.”
This might include the creation of an international and regional coalition, a training-and-equipping effort for local forces, and perhaps bringing in US Special Operations Forces (SOF) to help re-knit the tribal alliances against IS, “and possibly conduct raids against IS leadership as well,” he adds.
While Obama may say that he is not committing US “combat” forces to this campaign – that any fighting against IS should be led by local forces – he may also say that the US will “support” these local security forces efforts.
“This gives him wiggle room to then send in, say, US SOF forces in a ‘supporting’ role,” Mansoor says. “You don’t want to tie yourself to a position where you may have to renege and suffer the political blowback.”