In a major address on Thursday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton delivered some of her most comprehensive remarks to date on her foreign-policy vision and plan to defeat the terror group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State).
Clinton said that while the fight against ISIS and radical jihadism is a “worldwide fight,” the US “must lead it.”
She then identified three main focuses of her strategy to defeat ISIS.
Clinton outlined the three pillars of her strategy in front of an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York:
“One, defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East; two, disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilities the flow of fighters, financing arms, and propaganda around the world; three, harden our defences and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.”
On the campaign to defeat ISIS in the Middle East, Clinton said the US should step up its efforts to deny ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq.
“That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allies’ planes, more strikes, and a broader target set,” Clinton said. “A key obstacle standing in the way is a shortage of good intelligence about ISIS and its operations. So we need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East, an even closer partnership with regional intelligence services.”
Clinton also spoke of the need to “identify and eliminate ISIS’ command and control” — a strategy commonly known as “decapitation” — as well as its “economic lifelines.”
She said that ground forces would also be necessary to take back territory from ISIS, but added that she doesn’t think the US should put 100,000 troops on the ground again in the Middle East.
“That is just not the smart move to make here,” Clinton said. “If we’ve learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.”
But despite not wanting to commit a large ground force of US troops to the Middle East, Clinton did hint at the need for American advisers training Iraqi soldiers to have more freedom to go out with local units and help target airstrikes.
She also said the US should “ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units” and acknowledged that these groups “remain understandably preoccupied with fighting Assad,” referring to the embattled Syrian president.
Previously, the US government has reportedly told Syrian rebels in the US training program that they couldn’t fight Assad’s army or allies and that they must focus on ISIS alone.
Later, in a question-and-answer session with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Clinton seemed to affirm that the number-one priority is taking out ISIS rather than removing Assad from power.
“There is not going to be a successful military effort at this point to overturn Assad,” Clinton said. “That can only happen through the political process. So our effort should be focused on ISIS.”
Clinton also spoke of the need to target ISIS’ infrastructure — including “fighters, financing, arms, and propaganda.”
“Most urgent is stopping the flow of foreign fighters to and from the war zones of the Middle East,” Clinton said. “… Stemming this tide will require much better coordination and information-sharing among countries every step of the way. We should not stop pressing until Turkey, where most foreign fighters cross into Syria, finally locks down its border.”
That also ties in with the third element of Clinton’s strategy — protecting the US against homegrown as well as external threats.
“After 9/11, the United States made a lot of progress breaking down bureaucratic barriers to allow for more and better information sharing among agencies responsible for keeping us safe,” she said. “… The United States must work with Europe to dramatically and immediately improve intelligence sharing and counterterrorism coordination. European countries also should have the flexibility to enhance their border controls when circumstances warrant.”
One notable moment of the speech came when Clinton referenced the successful “Sunni Awakening” of the Iraq war, during which Sunni tribal leaders fought alongside US forces against Al Qaeda.
“The ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight,” Clinton said. “But that won’t happen so long as they do not feel they have a stake in their country or confidence in their own security and capacity to confront ISIS.”
She noted that though the first Sunni Awakening was successful, the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “betrayed” and forgot the tribes that rose up against Al Qaeda (which led Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake to point out that the same statement could be made about US President Barack Obama).
If the current Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is unwilling to arm Sunnis this time around, she said, “The coalition should do so directly.”
This assessment aligns with what some experts have said in the past, but that still doesn’t mean it’d be an easy road toward arming Sunnis without Baghdad’s cooperation.
Michael Pregent, a terrorism analyst and former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq, told Business Insider that the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds he’s spoken to in Iraq want permanent positions in the Iraqi Security Forces rather than temporary contracts to fight ISIS.
Pregent said that one former Iraqi general told him that Sunnis “can kill ISIS any time but unless we have a permanent role in our government, you will have a permanent ISIS.”
“We need to exert pressure on Baghdad to allow the creation of a Sunni force,” Pregent said in an email. “Not a temporary ‘awakening,’ but reconstituting the 30,000 Sunni American-trained soldiers Maliki purged from the Iraqi Army. They need to be an active-duty force to ensure an ISIS-like entity does not reemerge in the Sunni northern Middle East.”
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