Why the Islamic State is Winning
Today’s headlines bring word of some sort of ceasefire, or at least modus vivendi, between the Islamic State (*Da’ish) and Al-Qa’ida (AQ) in Syria, where the Salafi jihadists have been bitter enemies, fighting each other often more than the Assad regime which they both seek to overthrow. While it would be unwise to think this is more than a tactical allliance, any rapprochement between Da’ish and AQ is an important development that has worrisome implications for their mutual enemies.
This is particularly the case because the U.S.-led campaign to prevent Da’ish from taking over more of Syria and Iraq than the fanatical group already controls is going poorly, to be charitable. The belatedly named Operation INHERENT RESOLVE has been underway for over three months already and its accomplishments are few. Beyond some individually impressive airstrikes on Da’ish targets, there is less here than meets the eye, strategically speaking. In terms of operational tempo and coordination of objectives, what the United States and its allies are doing via air falls well short of an actual strategic air campaign, as has been obvious for some time, and stands little chance of blunting the grave Da’ish threat to both Syria and Iraq anytime soon. Dropping some bombs does not a strategic air campaign make, as the Obama White House seems to be grasping rather late.
Small wonder, then, that today we have news of Da’ish leadership, supposedly the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who may, or may not, have been gravely injured in a recent U.S. airstrike — taunting the American-led war against the group as “terrified, weak and powerless.” To make matters worse, Da’ish is proving adept at minimizing the impact of U.S. intelligence; specifically its communications security is showing worrisome signs of having a learning curve that will blunt the power of American SIGINT, which is always our leading source of intelligence around the world. One U.S. intelligence official noted that Da’ish “likely learned a lot from recent unauthorized disclosures,” an oblique reference to the on-going Snowden Operation, the largest leak in intelligence history, which hit Western SIGINT like a locomotive. The bottom line is that shortfalls in intelligence are rendering our already inadequate air war against Da’ish even less effective than it could be.
Then there is the far from trivial matter of confusion in Washington, DC, about what exactly Operation INHERENT RESOLVE is supposed to achieve. Reports this week reveal that the Pentagon cannot decide internally just what its new Iraq war is trying to do, while coordination with the White House, and particularly Obama’s deeply troubled National Security Council, falls short of the abysmal standards of civil-military relations set by the Johnson Administration during their failed war in Vietnam. Also as in the late 1960s, Pentagon displeasure at NSC micromanagement of the air war, particularly by the unpleasant and unqualified National Security Adviser Susan Rice, has leaked into the media in impressive, and depressing, detail.
To make matters worse, the current American strategy to defeat Da’ish, inasmuch as it exists at all, is based on the assumption that the United States and its allies will bring airpower to act as the hammer to crush Da’ish on the anvil of the Iraqi military. That force, created at enormous expense in American time, talent and treasure over the past decade, is frankly a joke. Yesterday, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey explained the requirement concisely: “We’re going to need about 80,000 competent Iraqi security forces to recapture territory lost, and eventually the city of Mosul, to restore the border.” Regrettably, Baghdad has nowhere near that many “competent” troops, despite the expenditure of billions of U.S. dollars to that end. In reality, the Iraqi military has roughly nine serviceable brigades, a bit more than 20,000 battle-ready troops who can be relied upon to confront Da’ish with any hope of success — and even that may be an optimistic estimate. Without a significant injection of American military advisors down to the battalion level in the Iraqi Army, there seems little hope that Bahgdad can push Da’ish back in a strategic manner, no matter how many bombs we drop. American taxpayers ought to have many questions about all this, having been told for years that their money had bought a decent military for Iraq.
Some have called for the introduction of U.S. ground forces to defeat Da’ish. While there is little doubt that this would work, at least temporarily — it would require something like two to three heavy divisions to get the job done, however, a considerable force — that it is being pushed by the very same strategically illiterate neocon cheerleaders who got everything wrong about Iraq since 2003 should tell you a lot about the quality of their analysis. Moreover, there is no reason to think that introducing U.S. ground forces into Iraq in large numbers will produce outcomes any different than they did a decade ago: tactical victories leading to no discernible strategic wins, which amounts to the same thing as defeat.
Recently retired Army Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger is causing a stir by pointing out the obvious yet painful truth that, in any strategic sense, the United States has been defeated in both its wars in the Greater Middle East since 2001. His new book, aptly named Why We Lost, is causing upset yet is sparking a debate that must happen (you can get a teaser of his views here). While I am not in full agreement with Bolger’s argument, it reveals realities that have been largely kept from the American public, specifically that generalship in both Afghanistan and Iraq has been deeply flawed, and that the Pentagon invested in impossible strategic goals in both countries. Bolger helpfully demolishes the Petraeus legend (like Petraeus, Bolger is a soldier with a Ph.D.; unlike Petraeus, Bolger is a serious and much-published scholar), which ought to have the salutary effect of blunting the peculiar and pernicious myth, beloved by neocons, that the U.S. military won in Iraq only to be sold out by Washington, DC. This “stab in the back” legend is toxic, though easily found inside the Beltway, and Bolger’s work, which has been preceded by equally trenchant analysis showing the essential fraudulence of Petraeus’s vaunted Surge, ought to have a cleansing effect on American discussions of our realistic strategic options in the Middle East.
The U.S. military is quite capable of defeating almost any adversary on the battlefield, even Da’ish, though that is not the same thing as producing lasting political outcomes that Americans will like. This is particularly true in the Greater Middle East, where the politico-cultural barriers to Westernization delivered by the barrel of a gun are steep and strong. Over the last decade, multiple approaches have been tried: in Afghanistan and Iraq, a U.S. “heavy” footprint was applied while in Libya a “lead from behind” air coalition employing locals as the ground force (not unlike what we hope to do in Iraq now) sufficed to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. All these countries are violent basket-cases now.
On the essential fraudulence of the “counterinsurgency” myth that was peddled to the American public during George W. Bush’s second term I don’t have much to add to what other scholars have already said. The “COIN” agenda proved effective at promoting the careers and fortunes of some U.S. Army officers and their think-tank hangers-on, yet quite ineffective at producing strategic victory. It is now time, indeed long overdue, to dispense with magical thinking about what the application of American military power might achieve in any lasting strategic or political sense in the Middle East.
To be blunt, we kill very effectively but we have precious little understanding of how to transform Muslim societies by force. Indeed, our efforts in that direction usually produce opposite outcomes, which should be easily predictable were we not besotted by lies about how others view us and what we seek to achieve. It is dangerously easy, when ensconced in the Pentagon or White House bubble of endless PowerPoints and meetings, to believe entirely untrue things. This is a strategic deception that is painful because it is entirely self-inflicted.
Simply put, we have no ability to change Muslim societies unless we are willing to stay the long haul and are eager to kill staggering numbers of people, many of them civilians, in horrible ways. And even then, lasting victory is far from certain. In the 1950’s, France crushed the Algerian insurgency tactically through methods that no Western state would approve today — massive internment of civilians, indiscriminate killings, and torture on an industrial scale — and still failed to strategically defeat the local resistance, thanks in no small part to global disgust at what France was doing in Algeria. And this was a country that France had occupied for well over a century and its military knew intimately. (One of the more ridiculous facets of the Petraeus-led COIN mafia was their citation of France’s 1954-62 war in Algeria as a model of any sort to emulate, but how they out-cherry-picked Cheney to make their ahistorical arguments is, alas, another story.)
The bad news I have to share with you is that the last time any Western effort to strategically defeat an uprising in the Middle East, meaning crushing it and bringing some sort of lasting peace, was in the early 1930’s, over eighty years ago. The worse news is it was Fascist Italy pacifying its Libyan colony with horrifying force.
Italy had occupied Libya since 1911-12, when it grabbed it from the ailing Ottoman Empire, and Rome periodically crushed small-scale rebellions there. By the late 1920’s, however, the Italians faced a serious uprising, led by the wily Sheikh Omar Mukhtar, a gifted rebel leader. To crush this revolt, Mussolini dispatched General Rodolfo Graziani with a mandate to exert Fascist control over Libya using all means necessary. This Graziani did, employing armor, artillery, and airplanes, some carrying chemical bombs, to kill everybody moving in rebel-held areas. Moreover, the Italians interned the entire civilian population in many places, some 100,000 people, mainly women and children, of whom forty percent died from disease and malnutrition. Mukhtar was captured by the Italians in 1931, his rebel army having been ground to pieces, and was executed in public. By the next year, Rome had pacified Libya, thanks to outreach to the defeated rebels, and the country was at peace, as it would remain until the Second World War. That many Libyans fought for Fascist Italy against the British in that war says something about Italian acumen in suppressing rebellions — although, needless to add, Graziani is considered a war criminal today, as he certainly was by our current standards.
Simply put, no Western country today would approve the use of almost any of the methods that Italy applied in Libya. Indeed, as I’ve explained previously, even Putin’s Russia has cleaned up its act in this regard. No state in the 21st century that does not wish to be a global pariah can employ tactics that would actually be effective in suppressing the sorts of uprisings that are now endemic in Iraq, Syria, and Libya — and are likely spreading across the Middle East right now. Unless the fate of one’s country is directly at stake, killing lots of civilians and applying brute force on a massive scale is simply off the table. The sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we can have an honest and reality-based debate about what can be achieved by force of arms in the Middle East.
Nearly three months ago, I explained how airpower should be applied to gradually defeat Da’ish, and I stick by my recommendations. We can still win this one, in the sense that we can prevent Da’ish fanatics from taking over more of the Middle East than they already have. Eventually, they will implode thanks to their own toxic radicalism. Additionally, my recommendations on how to slowly, deeply defeat Da’ish through aggressive offensive counterintelligence, strategically applied, still stand. Regrettably, I see no signs that any of this is happening. Instead, our efforts to defeat Da’ish are ailing, and this is a fight we cannot afford to lose. A necessary first step is having a genuine debate about what our military can — and cannot — achieve in Iraq and Syria.
*Da’ish is considered pejorative and is disliked by the Islamic State, so by all means let’s use it.