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Underestimation Nation

An explosion following an air-strike is seen in the Syrian town of Kobani from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 28, 2014  REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
An explosion following an air-strike is seen in the Syrian town of Kobani near the Turkish-Syrian border. US-led air strikes on Kobani are aimed at saving the besieged border town from ISIS control. Source: REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis, October 2014

On October 15th Fox News presented a poll that found 58% of Americans felt “things in the world are ‘going to hell in a handbasket.” [1] These findings tell us two things. First, we should probably question the quality of Fox News polls when a question legitimately uses the term “Hell in a handbasket” to gauge public opinion, and second, there currently exists a general consensus that the world is facing serious turmoil. News of the deadly Ebola virus, Russian troops advancing further into Ukraine, and the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are inescapable. As the United States and various allies continue their aerial assault on ISIL strongholds across Iraq and Syria, President Obama recently stated in an interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes that the United States intelligence community “severely underestimated” the extremist fundamental Islamic group.

Until fairly recently, ISIL was a subordinate branch of the larger Sunni fundamental Islamic group Al-Qaeda. However, they were disavowed when Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri deemed them too extreme and too brutal.[2] The newly independent group then fought in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for a period of time in the on going Syrian civil war against the Bashar al-Assad regime, where they were responsible for some of the war’s most horrific violence. At the beginning of October the United Nations released a report that concluded the group is responsible for killing approximately 9,347 civilians and wounding at least 17,386 in their current assault on the “non-believers” across Iraq and Syria.[3] Many of these killings have been executed in very public, very gruesome ways; such as the beheading of American journalist James Foley as well as multiple public crucifixions.[4]

In his interview with 60 Minutes senior correspondent Steve Kroft, President Obama describes ISIL as a “cancer that has grown for too long” and that they “suggest that it is acceptable to kill innocent people who worship a different God.”[5] The President continues saying, “our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” Kroft promptly retorted saying, “we underestimated ISIL…and we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.” Obama could only reply, “That’s true. That’s absolutely true.”[6] Our current assistance strategy of air strikes, aid, and armaments is formulated off these underestimations of the enemy, and overestimations of the support to be expected from the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Even though a makeshift, anti-Islamic State coalition has begun to form, with over 60 member nations ranging from Sunni-majority Arab countries, European countries, Australia, and Asian countries, a great deal of skepticism has emerged.[7] Of the notable voices is current Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon who recently stated: “Military strikes against ISIS might have little lasting effect or even be counter-productive if there is no movement towards an inclusive government in Iraq.”[8]

Are our efforts for not? Are we truly helping the Iraqi and Syrian people in the most objective and mutually beneficial way possible? Do we have the resources to engage in more military action after a decade of costly wars? Are we are adding fuel to the threat posed by ISIL to American lives rather than stifling it? All are pertinent questions, and the fact that we don’t even have a proper idea of the enemy’s capabilities begs the question of whether we are fully prepared to engage in a dialogue about potentially sacrificing American lives in combat. America seems to have fallen into a trend of underestimating our opponents in military confrontations ever since we stood on the victorious side after WWII. Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, and Afghanistan are all products of a general underestimation of the enemy’s fighting capacity, coupled with great confidence in our military, and the consequences are far too often fatal. These realizations on behalf of the intelligence community and the President come at a very crucial time. Let us not again make the mistake of forgetting our history before we enter into another military engagement.

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