opinion | Hank Johnson

What comes after ISIS matters

Demonstrators chanted pro-ISIS slogans as they carried the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq.
AP/file 2014
Demonstrators chanted pro-ISIS slogans as they carried the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq.

As we recover from the recent devastating ISIS attacks in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and over the Sinai, we must take a moment to step back and breathe. The instinctive reaction in circumstances like these is to heed the call to rush ground troops to Syria and Iraq to destroy ISIS, but after 15 years of war, tens of thousands of US casualties, and trillions of dollars, any further escalation against ISIS must be deliberate and well planned.

First and foremost, we must formulate a clear vision for a post-ISIS Iraq and Syria. We must develop a tolerable and sustainable vision of the region after ISIS and plan our approach to this crisis backward from there. We cannot repeat the same mistakes we made in Iraq, where we did not plan for how the country would be governed after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Thus, any new plans moving forward must incorporate the interests of the wide variety of regional stakeholders in order to forge a durable peace.

What does this entail? We must reach out to both Shi’ite and Sunni leaders throughout the region, along with our allies in Turkey and the rest of NATO. It also means having long-term strategic discussions with our other G20 partners, all of whom have substantial investments and interests in the Middle East in some way. More importantly, we must have a plan in place that addresses the systemic grievances of disenfranchised Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria, whose alienation from the Damascus and Baghdad governments has directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. Without confronting these grievances, this region will remain susceptible to further radicalization in the future.


It is now abundantly clear that ISIS is willing to attack soft targets and to travel far to do so. From the attack at a museum in Tunisia, to attempts to overthrow the Bangladeshi government, to dozens of other barbaric acts of violence, the group’s massacre in Paris represents its growing confidence and reach. ISIS has demonstrated that it poses a clear threat to every nation in the region and beyond. As such, the costs of confronting this menace and the responsibilities of establishing a sustainable post-conflict order in the region must be shared by our regional partners and the broader international community. ISIS’ proven capabilities reflect the need for coordination in the face of this shared security threat.

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President Obama’s recent talks in Turkey with other critical world leaders, including those from Russia, suggest that broad-based international cooperation founded on mutual security and diplomatic interests is not only possible but integral to the long-term goals of a peaceful and stable Iraq and Syria. In the meantime, it is critical that we empower our allies and coalition partners through all means at our disposal. This will allow for the costs to be shared equally.

Such horrible events force many Americans to ponder the same question: “Shouldn’t we unleash the might of our armed forces to destroy those who committed these atrocities?” To be clear, we are already involved in a campaign against ISIS. However, after nearly 15 years of extraordinarily costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the decision to commit ground troops must remain a last resort.

We should not commit our troops if we are not prepared for the long-term commitment of establishing a meaningful and sustainable peace, as we learned following the invasion of Iraq. That is every bit as critical to our national security as victory in military engagements.

Destroying ISIS would eliminate one extremist group from the geopolitical stage, but as recent history has shown us, another will take its place. This is because groups like ISIS are not a state. They do not represent the religion of Islam, and they do not represent all Muslims. Instead, ISIS and its predecessors are highly destructive and adaptable enterprises that prey upon the hopelessness of marginalized populations and have shown they are capable of indiscriminate devastation. They are quite simply bigots who violently impose their will on others.


In the face of such barbaric violence, we must take caution in our decision-making. The actions we take cannot result in the same type of oppressive alienation that has left large swaths of people in this region without hope for the future. Our action moving forward should not continue the cycle of creating thousands of disenfranchised, terrified, unemployed, and hopeless youth. We must take care to ensure our next steps do not destroy or alienate the future leaders of the Muslim world.

Congressman Hank Johnson, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, represents Georgia’s Fourth District.