–Peter Kouretsos– President Obama repeatedly and definitively states that there will not be US combat troops fighting the ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says they may become necessary if the situation ever warranted it.
I have only been alive for 23 years, but for these past 23 years (4 presidential administrations), we have been bombing Iraq more or less continuously:
The reality is that air power by itself is not enough to defeat insurgents. Bombing runs can give our forces control of the battlefield, but a JDAM cannot solve the political problems that lead people to take up arms against a government they see as illegitimate. Bombs can clear territory, but bombs cannot hold territory. To make matters more complicated, consider your options if you begin to see groups like the ISIS moving away from sparsely populated areas and into cities. American commanders are watching as the ISIS has begun using the kind of tactics used by the Hamas in Gaza: avoiding detection by dispersing themselves and their weapons and hiding them among the civilian population. A ground force is necessary.
But three examples of recent Middle Eastern interventions are also pretty telling, even with the aid of ground forces:
- After 9/11 the Afghan Northern Alliance successfully ousted the Taliban and set up a new government with our help from the air. We controlled the airspace, dropped thousands of tons of bombs, and fielded a U.S. force that, at its max totaled 100,000 troops and hundreds of thousands of U.S.-trained Afghans. Some 13 years later the Taliban is still a threat to a government teetering on default and collapse. Taliban frequently boast “NATO has all the watches,” referencing our superior arms and technology, “but we have all the time.” And are they wrong?
- Following a heavy air campaign in 2003, a U.S. ground force made quick work of Iraq’s military. But waiting for us around the bend was an anti-American insurgency and a blown lid on a pot of sectarian conflict that was simmering for decades. The surge “worked” and the counterinsurgency campaign “worked,” but pundits today forget those things were a tactical objective linked to a strategic end; it gave the new Iraqi government an opportunity to start governing and control the country. But the Maliki government squandered this opportunity, and instead used the surge to consolidate Shia influence and begin purging dissidents, mainly Sunnis. So after the US combat troops left, the government began to dissolve, as did the Iraqi Army, trained and equipped by the US, when the ISIS began launching their attacks. To make matters worse, many of the ISIS’s military leadership and regional governors are former generals and ministers who served in Saddam Hussein’s military and Ba’ath Party. Pundits who claim that the reason why ISIS is in Iraq now because we pulled out in 2011 are only partially correct; they must also acknowledge that the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 helped create the conditions under which the insurgency grew.
- The most recent example here is, of course, Libya, where a NATO-led air campaign (no Western ground forces, unless you’re including small Special Operations forces) aided rebels against the Gaddafi government in 2011. But as in Iraq, while the initial tactical success was hailed as a victory, the security situation eroded, as the militias we supported with our airstrikes began fighting among themselves and the interim government in what can be described now as a low-intensity civil war. Today Libya is a failed state, a geographical expression at best.
Now, what does all this tell us about the fight against the ISIS in 2014?
The strategy outlined by President Obama on September 10th is to provide air support and training to the Iraqi army, the Shiite militias, and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, to drive the ISIS out of Iraqi territory; while training select groups of Syrian rebels and supporting them to defeat the ISIS in Syria (airstrikes have not been ruled out to accomplish this in Syria either). Assuming that this plan succeeds – and the ISIS is degraded and defeated without US troops having to engage in heavy combat in Iraq and Syria – then what?
Iraq, under intense U.S. pressure, formed a new unity government, promising the inclusiveness and openness that was denied to half of the country under the Maliki government. But what if it turns out to be the same movie with a different title, and the sectarian divisions don’t go away as easily as everyone would like to? And in Syria, if the ISIS is destroyed, there’s still a civil war with the Assad regime to be had; will we continue supporting those rebels against Assad?
I don’t think the question here is if the US and its coalition will be able to take on the ISIS. I think the real question here is if we have the capability and the capacity to leave behind structures that ensure the ISIS or something like it doesn’t come back. Any action undertaken by the U.S. needs to be tied to realistic national goals and determine what resources are necessary to achieve those aims. Engaging Sunnis and convincing them that the Shia militias sent to “liberate” your city are better than ISIS will be a tall order; even during the famously referenced Anbar Awakening, where we convinced Sunnis in western Iraq to switch sides and help us defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, it took thousands of U.S. troops on the streets and millions of dollars in bribes to local leaders ($16 million a month) to make a difference.
But 10 years and $1 trillion later, how far have we come? According to the President, the plan for combating the ISIS could follow the models for dealing with the insurgencies in Yemen and Somalia; failing states where U.S. and U.S.-backed counter-terrorist forces utilize airstrikes and clandestine Special Forces raids to manage groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Shabaab. This could be the future of Iraq and Syria for many years.
To rephrase the words of Bob McNamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defense, who after the Cuban Missile Crisis lamented the reality that we would face perpetual crisis, “Today there is no longer such a thing as strategy, there is only [ISIS] management.” It’s worth entertaining the thought that perhaps not all problems are meant to be “solved,” at least not all of them by us; the only thing we can do on our end is try to manage them.