"Lasting defeat" has become a mantra for top U.S. officials when talking about the strategy to defeat Islamic State terrorists.
"We must, we can and we will deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told soldiers this week at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, using an acronym for the group.
Carter used “lasting defeat” nine more times during his remarks that day, and twice more a day later at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, talking about “the overall strategy to deal ISIL a lasting defeat.”
That objective has become a priority for the Obama administration and others who see Islamic State as an existential threat. Less clear is how that “lasting defeat” will be engineered and how long it will take.
Building local forces
“The global jihadists will not be defeated until the ungoverned space in which they operate is eliminated, their ideology is discredited and stability is returned to the Middle East,” Michael Vickers, a former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told House Armed Services Committee members Tuesday.
“This will require a significant long-term investment in capacity building of indigenous forces, irregular as well as regular, and sustained U.S. engagement,” he warned.
Some of that is already underway, especially in Iraq, where U.S. and other coalition members have trained more than 17,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops, according to coalition data. Another 2,800 Iraqi soldiers are currently in training, officials said.
The U.S. has also been advising and assisting forces in Syria, though efforts to train moderate Syrian forces were scrapped.
Still, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told lawmakers those efforts might not be enough, especially as local forces in Syria, with the backing of U.S. and coalition airpower, make progress against Islamic State forces.
Keeping lights, water on
“Local authorities who are trying to keep the electricity going, trying to keep hospitals going, trying to keep the water going are going to need help,” Ford said. “The Islamic State operated these things. When it’s gone, services must be maintained.”
And former officials caution that type of help will have to be given and sustained, even after Islamic State forces have been defeated militarily.
“I think you’re looking at 10, 15, 20 years of U.S. commitment to this region in a very significant way,” said former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell. “We needed to be in South Korea for a very, very long time to maintain stability on the peninsula.”
U.S. officials also say Washington has provided Iraq with more than $600 million in humanitarian aid and has helped create a $50 million stabilization fund to help rebuild cities like Ramadi, largely destroyed in the fighting to root out Islamic State fighters.
The U.S. has also spent more than $5 billion so far on humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.
But some former officials warn that without a continued U.S. military presence, Iraq will be in danger of again falling victim to Islamic State or its successor.
“The point is not to pick up and completely leave,” former CIA Director James Woolsey told VOA during a recent interview. “We did not pick up and completely leave Germany or Japan after World War II. We did not pick up and leave South Korea after the Korean War. Where things have been successful, we have stayed, along with allies, and worked to bring the state along into democracy and prosperity.”
Yet while the U.S. has been willing to spend money on rebuilding infrastructure in countries like Iraq, there are questions about whether there is enough political willpower to undertake the type of comprehensive “state-building” efforts needed to heal long-standing rifts between Sunni and Shia communities and create effective governments.
“How do we get the constituencies that matter?” said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “How do we get them engaged in a process which arrives at an Iraq they can live in?”
Chayes, who served as a special adviser to Admiral Mike Mullen, a former U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman, said in Iraq after the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein and in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban that the U.S. paid “lip service” to such efforts, leaving newly installed authorities on their own to deal with sectarian strife and corruption.
“These regimes went about deliberately imploding the institutional infrastructure that could have made for an alternative regime,” she said, adding that there is still a need for significant tutelage.
In his address this week to soldiers about to deploy to Iraq to help in the effort to defeat the Islamic State group, Carter only went so far in addressing those concerns.
"For our military efforts to produce lasting effects, we must set the conditions for sustainable political stability in the region,” he said.
In a Twitter town hall on Wednesday, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Colonel Steve Warren also acknowledged the challenge.
“A lasting defeat requires political reconciliation here in Iraq and an end to the civil war in Syria,” he said. “That can only come internally from the political process."