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How Many 'Boots on the Ground' Would It Take to Defeat ISIS?

We asked two experts about the complexities of invading the Islamic State.

Brian McManus

Brian McManus

US troops in Iraq in 2008. Photo via US Army Flickr account

Though President Barack Obama announced the US would send 50 special forces troops to Syria in October, and though America, along with several other NATO nations, has stepped up anti-ISIS operations in the region, many Americans still aren't satisfied. The Republican candidates have called out Obama as being weak when it comes to the Islamic State (without having much in the way of concrete policy alternatives), and a new poll released Monday found that a majority of Americans want to send ground troops to Iraq or Syria to fight the terrorist menace occupying so many minds. But what would that look like?

Related: One of the World Trade Center Bombers Talks About Today's Terrorism

To find out, VICE reached out to Michelle Benson and Jacob Kathman, both PhDs and political science professors at the University at Buffalo. Benson studies international conflict, intergovernment organizations, and international relations. Kathman studies international relations, civil war, and violence against civilians. According to them, most Americans want ground troops in Syria because most Americans don't really know what that means.

VICE: What would sending troops to fight ISIS look like, and do you believe it could be effective in the war on terror?
Jacob Kathman: The size and type of intervention with ground troops would depend entirely upon the goals of such a mission. If the goal is to weaken ISIS, then such a mission could come in many forms. If the goal is to dismantle ISIS, the type of counter-insurgency campaign that would need to be waged by the US via an intervention with ground troops would necessitate a very large force, one that I would imagine most Americans to be wary of deploying. For this reason, I don't find simple poll questions about the preferences of Americans for ground troops to be all that informative, as they don't often consider the mission goals and the hypothetical costs that may be required to achieve those goals.

ISIS aren't centrally located like other, more traditional enemies we've fought in the past. Because they're not just in Syria, but spread out, what does an attack against them look like tactically? Would this sort of thing be more the purview of special forces operations?

Michelle Benson: It is important to remember that ISIS's geographic strongholds are largely, but not completely, associated as much with its desire to be a state/caliphate. Destroying ISIS's holdings is Raqqa [its self-proclaimed capital], for example, does not destroy their ability to plan, sponsor, and support terrorism.

How many ground troops would it take to wipe out ISIS?
Benson: No one really knows how many ground troops it would take to wipe out ISIS. If there were an easy answer to this question, the battle against ISIS would be much easier—that is why it is so challenging. The US and its allies would have already used any obvious tactic to wipe out ISIS if there was one. The problem is, that ISIS, like al Queda, is not an actor that is solely associated with one geographic area. That is the major issue.

Kathman: By "wipe out ISIS" I assume you mean to destroy the group and create an environment in which it (or a group like it) could not reconstitute at a later date following an inevitable pullback of the intervention force. It is this second part, the reoccupation of territory currently held by ISIS that would require a large number of troops. At the moment, Iraq and Syria have a very limited ability to hold and govern that territory, even if ISIS was removed from the equation entirely. In Iraq, the Iraqi military, with heavy American assistance, may be able to move into the vacuum left by ISIS once it is destroyed. In Syria, which group would the US prefer to fill the political void? This is not an easy question to answer. However, in both Syria and Iraq, it is hard to believe that the local populations would welcome American forces readily given past experience in the region.

"Contrary to common perception, ISIS is not a terribly powerful organization in any military sense, at least not as compared to a force that the US could put on the ground."

How long would military operations take?
Kathman: I can't imagine an intervention to destroy ISIS and reconstitute the physical and political space left by it would be anything short of a long haul. Contrary to common perception, ISIS is not a terribly powerful organization in any military sense, at least not as compared to a force that the US could put on the ground. However, ISIS's weakness should not be interpreted to mean that the US could defeat it easily. As with any insurgent organization, material weakness is not the equivalent of tactical weakness. The group's ability to blend into the population, hide from an intervening force, engage in hit-and-run terror tactics, and slowly bleed an interventionist force are strategic advantages of ISIS if a large US force were to arrive. The success of such an intervention in destroying the group would likely have more to do with the political will of the US.

This would include surviving the costs in lives and treasure that ISIS could more readily impose upon the US once an interventionist force arrives. And the US would be accepting far more in terms of a responsibility to protect vulnerable populations by intervening, which is not likely to be something that the US can positively contribute to (at least in the short-term) through intervention.

Obama's said ISIS wants to see American boots on the ground in Syria. Is he right?
Kathman: It depends on what perspective the observer has of ISIS's goals. A literal interpretation of ISIS's rhetorical/political message might be seen by some as being some type of suicidal devotion to achieving the end of days. I tend to be rather skeptical of these accounts. In many ways, ISIS and its tactics are not all that different from other violent insurgent organizations that use violence to acquire resources, hold territory, cow the people into submission, and hold onto power. Another perspective would hold that tempting the US into the fight is likely to degrade ISIS militarily and reduce the ability of ISIS to hold territory and consolidate its hold on power. I tend to think that the political power afforded to ISIS by its military successes is more important to the group than whatever radical religious goals it promotes.

Benson: President Obama is definitely correct when he says ISIS wants to see American troops on the ground in Syria. American troops would be the preferred target for ISIS in Syria and the Levant.

The ceasefire Secretary of State John Kerry was pushing for between the Syrian government and some insurgents has begun. How does that factor into whether the US should send its own troops there?
Kathman: If a ceasefire holds, and that is a big "IF," then ground troops can play an important security role. Although it is likely not useful for the US to perform this function, at least not on its own. Given the US's clear preference for a Syria that does not include Assad, ISIS, and several other rebel factions, it is not likely that parties see the presence of American soldiers as a stabilizing force toward peace. However, the UN has a long history of peacekeeping that has been far more effective in stabilizing active- and post-conflict environments than it is often given credit. There's a good amount of scientific research that points to the UN's usefulness in such environments, and the UN often does not bring with it the geopolitical baggage that the US and other third party countries do.

On Sunday Obama addressed the nation, saying that we will continue to defeat terrorism abroad by giving aid to local forces fighting ISIS, cutting off financing, interrupting plots, and preventing recruitment. That seems fairly thorough. What more does sending troops get us?
Kathman: Again, I think it depends on the goal of sending troops. Reconstituting the political status quo of the region would require troops. Ensuring that a particular rebel faction is to defeat Assad and ISIS may also require a large number of troops. I imagine that President Obama has rather limited political goals that he is seeking to achieve, thus justifying the limited means. More comprehensive goals could require greater military commitments. Unfortunately, many observers seem to forget that achieving sweepingly comprehensive goals also comes with a heavy burden. I imagine that it is this that President Obama seeks to avoid.

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