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Reckless onslaught could aid ISIL, military warns

<p>Presidential candidates and hawkish members of Congress are stepping up their cries for more robust military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — but Pentagon leaders and government terrorism advisers caution that a reckless escalation of the war could help the group recruit disaffected Muslims around the world.</p><p>The quandary has heightened since last week’s deadly shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., which called attention to the danger posed by ISIL sympathizers who become self-radicalized to commit violence in the West. It’s one reason that the U.S. and its allies held back from bombing the Islamic State’s headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa, and why President Barack Obama <a href=”http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/obama-terrorism-san-bernardino-oval-office-216478″ target=”_blank”>warned</a> on Sunday night that military overreach could lead to ISIL &quot;using our presence to draw new recruits.&quot; </p><p>&quot;If you’re killing 1,000 a month in strikes and they’re replacing them at 2,000 a month, that’s not good math,&quot; Army Brig. Gen. Michael Kurilla, the deputy director of special operations and counter-terrorism on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, <a href=”https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/a-view-from-the-ct-foxhole-an-interview-with-rdml-michael-dumont-bg-michael-kurilla-and-col-stephen-michael” target=”_blank”>told</a> West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center in October.</p><p>&quot;There are inherently conflicting considerations here,&quot; said Paul Pillar, who retired in 2005 as the top U.S. government intelligence analyst for the Near East and South Asia and is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. &quot;Some form of military actions plays right into ISIL’s hands. That has to be balanced with whatever positive happens from military force.&quot;</p><p>Those concerns aren’t quelling the tough talk in Congress and on the campaign trail following last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which appear to have been coordinated by ISIL, as well as the California shootings, which investigators have blamed on a Muslim couple who the FBI says <a href=”http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/san-bernardino-shooters-radicalized-fbi-216498″ target=”_blank”>became &quot;radicalized&quot;</a> by the Islamic State’s message.</p><p>“We will utterly destroy ISIS,” Republican White House hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said at a campaign rally over the weekend, using another acronym for the terror network that controls parts of Iraq and Syria and has enlisted followers in numerous other countries. “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”</p><p>In a recent campaign ad, GOP front-runner Donald Trump vowed to &quot;quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.&quot;</p><p>ISIL, in its own pronouncements and those of its sympathizers, has also sought to goad the United States into doing more militarily, saying Obama’s unwillingness to send large numbers of ground troops demonstrated American weakness. The group has also made it a point of purposely operating in areas where they know civilians will be placed in grave risk from U.S. and allied air or drone strikes.</p><p>“This is a success for the Islamic State in creating a ‘balance of terror’ with the strongest military force in the world,” one self-described loyalist <a href=”https://twitter.com/alwagha53/status/673775743038578688″ target=”_blank”>tweeted</a> on Monday, according to <a href=”http://www.vocativ.com/” target=”_blank”>Vocativ.com</a>, which tracks jihadi communications over social media. </p><p>Another supporter mocked Obama, calling him a &quot;crusader&quot; who &quot;is afraid of sending his dogs to fight the [Islamic] State.”</p><p>But it is the no-holds-barred pronouncements by Cruz and Trump that make many current and former government terrorism experts cringe.</p><br><p>The experts widely agree that dislodging ISIL from its sanctuary in Iraq and Syria is crucial to weakening the group’s appeal in the region and beyond. But they feel deep anxiety about doing it the wrong way.</p><p>The Pentagon in recent weeks has been highly critical of the Russian approach to air strikes inside Syria, denouncing its blunt approach and seeming lack of concern about the consequences of killing large numbers of civilians.</p><p>&quot;They are just using old-fashioned, mid-20th century technology and accuracy to sling lead around the battlefield,&quot; Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, told reporters on Nov. 24. </p><p>Citing non-governmental organizations, Warren estimated &quot;possibly upwards of 1,000 civilian casualties caused by the Russians.&quot;</p><p>Even some critics of the Obama administration’s military restraint see dangers in letting the pendulum swing too far in the other direction.</p><p>Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who frequently advises the Pentagon, believes that the so-called rules of engagement designed to inhibit collateral damage from the U.S.-led air war that began in July 2014 &quot;have been so tight they have made it impossible to make air power effective.&quot;</p><p>Nevertheless, he said in an interview: &quot;If we go out and strike at a parade in a public area, air power is not a scalpel. Killing civilians is something you have to be very careful about. You can’t just ignore these precautions.&quot; Cordesman laid out of some of his concerns in a recent <a href=”http://csis.org/publication/paris-isis-and-rush-war” target=”_blank”>paper</a> titled &quot;Paris, ISIS, and the Rush to ‘War.’&quot;</p><p>Pillar said some level of military force against the Islamic State can reduce its appeal to militants. &quot;Checking the advance of ISIS on the ground and actually pushing it back in places — as has happened in Iraq this year — will degrade significantly the reputation in the eyes of potential recruits,” he said.</p><p>But he also said the targeting policies the U.S. employs as the air war picks up &quot;become very important.&quot; </p><p>&quot;You might hope to make a headline by recapturing a town, but if it is at the cost of high collateral damage that would stoke the anti-Western resentments<b>,</b> that helps a group like ISIL,&quot; he said.</p><p>Those concerns have most recently informed the military strategy aimed at damaging ISIL’s revenue from illegal oil sales. Fears that destroying the supplies — and the supply chain — would cause undue harm to the civilian economy in Iraq and Syria weighed heavily on Obama administration officials. U.S.-led air strikes have recently become much more aggressive, however, striking hundreds of delivery trucks that move the black market energy supply.</p><p>&quot;That is one area where a somewhat higher risk-taking approach is worthwhile,&quot; Pillar agreed. &quot;But it doesn’t eliminate the drawbacks completely. Do you attack tanker trucks driven by poor schmucks just trying to make a living?&quot;</p><p>Pillar also stressed that a key to a successful military campaign that minimizes the potential terrorist recruiting bonanza is the extent to which Arab allies are playing a prominent role. Cordesman agreed, saying, &quot;The more that indigenous forces can be doing the dirty work and the less Western forces are doing, it the better.&quot;</p><br><p>Such perceptions could be even more important in preventing ISIL from recruiting Muslims who are watching the destruction from thousands of miles away, as opposed to young Muslims living in the battle zone, said Craig Whiteside, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of the Iraq War who is now a terrorism researcher at the Naval War College in Monterey, Calif. </p><p>He said research suggests that the terror group’s narrative that innocent Muslims are being targeted by the West can often more easily take hold among would-be sympathizers far from the conflict. </p><p>The ISIL &quot;information campaign plays on the themes that the West is at war with Muslims,&quot; said Whiteside, who is working on a new anti-ISIL war gaming strategy for the Pentagon. &quot;Someone in San Bernardino and watching this from afar, somehow that narrative often affects certain them more than somebody who is much closer.&quot;</p><p>A big test of whether the U.S. can navigate these dangers looms in ISIL-occupied Mosul, which is Iraq’s second-largest city and a key element of the Islamic State’s claim to be a caliphate. </p><p>&quot;Part of their center of gravity is the Caliphate. That’s what’s driving the recruits,&quot; Kurilla told West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. He added: &quot;If you can take that away from them and you break up the idea that they no longer have a Caliphate, that can start to break the recruiting. You have to challenge that ideology.&quot;</p><p>Yet even the most carefully calibrated military campaign — one that minimizes civilian casualties and gives the military coalition a Muslim face, both in the air and on the ground — could still pose new dangers, said J.M. Berger, a specialist in radical Islamic terror groups and a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Tens of thousands of the group’s fighters could simply just relocate to sow terrorism in other countries, including possibly in the West. </p><p>&quot;If ISIL is displaced from its state,&quot; he said, &quot;there is a high risk of increased terrorism in the short term, and a risk we might need to go to Libya or Nigeria in the not-too-distant future if ISIL’s center of gravity just moves to one of those locations.&quot;<br /></p><br>

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