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The Ever-Expanding War Against ISIS

Any war with the maximalist goal of "destroying" an enemy will always be longer and more costly than we realize now.
fighter planes

The military campaign against ISIS keeps expanding:

The Obama administration is preparing to carry out a campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that may take three years to complete [bold mine-DL], requiring a sustained effort that could last until after President Obama has left office, according to senior administration officials.

It hasn’t taken very long for last month’s “limited” intervention in Iraq to expand far beyond anything that the administration originally described to the public. Administration officials were denying that they planned for a “sustained” campaign just a few weeks ago, and now they’re saying the opposite. Obama said that he wouldn’t “allow” the U.S. to be dragged into a new war, and he is now setting out to take the U.S. into that war. What we’re seeing now is not so much mission creep as mission gallop, and it all seems to be happening without any serious consideration of the costs or the potential dangers of such an expansive campaign. Even if the U.S. does not eventually commit large numbers of ground troops to this campaign, the U.S. will be at war in two countries where it does not need to be fighting. This is every bit as much a war of choice as the earlier wars in Iraq and Libya, and it hasn’t been thought through any better than those were.

The problem with this isn’t just that the intervention was initially sold to the public as something completely different from what it is becoming, but also that there has been no serious debate over this new policy. The near-instant consensus that ISIS must be “destroyed” isn’t based on an accurate or sober assessment of the threat the group poses to U.S. security. It is almost entirely a product of overreaction, panic, and anger because of the group’s truly appalling behavior. The administration was using alarmist rhetoric about ISIS from the start, and now it is preparing to back up that rhetoric with ill-considered military escalation. This is very unwise, and if the administration is allowed to do this it is going to end up costing the U.S. more in the coming years than anyone expects.

Those costs will come from the campaign itself, and from the boost to jihadist recruiting and propaganda that U.S. interventions have typically produced over the last thirteen years, and they may also come in the form of attacks on Americans that might otherwise not have happened. Any war with the maximalist goal of “destroying” an enemy is always going to last much longer and will take many more resources and lives than we realize now. If the administration thinks it may take three years, that is the minimum amount of time that we should expect such a campaign to last. A war to “destroy” ISIS will probably take much longer than three years, assuming that it is even possible to destroy such a group entirely without creating more jihadist groups in the process, and almost no one has attempted to calculate what the price of “destroying” ISIS might be. The public has no appetite for another prolonged military campaign, and it is doubtful that they will offer sustained support for a war that the president just told them he was not going to wage.



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