Through the past 13+ years, the United States has fought a war of choice in Iraq, and has extended its original, fully justified punitive mission in Afghanistan into a war of choice (including a "surge") there. It has the world's most powerful and most expensive military and has won nearly every tactical engagement in each country. Yet in a strategic sense it has lost both wars.
Now it faces the challenge of the indisputably evil and brutal ISIS. Of the desirability of crushing ISIS there is no doubt. But after the previous commitments led to grief, people have looked back and asked, 'How could we ever have thought that [Tactic X] would have worked?'
It's worth trying to ask that question ahead of time with ISIS, as it was worth doing with Iraq. The cover story of our brand-new issue [Subscribe!] is a tremendous, thoroughly reported, vividly told analysis by Graeme Wood of the history, ambitions, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the Islamic State movement. I urge you to read it and think about its implications.
Along with Graeme Wood's story, please consider this shorter assessment by Kenneth S. Brower, a longtime defense analyst. He doesn't agree with Wood on everything, but in the areas both of overlap and of differences I think you'll find these essays clarifying and valuable.
Some Thoughts About Our So-Called "War" on ISIS
By Kenneth S. Brower
As I see it the Sunni minority in Iraq and the Sunni majority in Syria are under siege by Shia. ISIS is the one successful Sunni group opposing the Shia. A very large portion of Arab Sunnis at least passively support ISIS, not because they support its extreme ideology but because they want the Sunnis to emerge victorious. A subset of the pro-ISIS Sunnis actually support their extreme ideology. What we call the Iraqi military is seen by almost all Arab Sunnis as a Shia army under the influence, if not the control, of Iran. This explains why Turkey maintains open borders, as well as the policy of Jordan, Saudi, and the Emirates.
I simply do not understand our strategy, assuming we really have one. If our goal is defeating ISIS's ideology and its support of international terrorism this cannot be done by indirect fire, PERIOD! If [conclusive defeat] is our objective we only have limited choices: either military control of 25 million Syrian/Iraqi Sunnis, which will require a sustained force of 500,000 for decades; or creating conditions whereby the majority of Sunni Arabs will see it in their self interest to subjugate the ideological minority.
If our objective is simply to maintain the borders set by colonial powers in 1919, then air power alone will suffice. But the inevitable result will be Shia control of Syria and Iraq and a strengthening of ISIS ideology and terrorism.
The use of air power is our only feasible military option, but using air power to liberate urban areas, like Mosul means destroying them! That will only create more enemies.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to this issue that can be generated by the U.S. But I believe there is a political solution.
We have to give the Sunnis reason to reject ISIS. That would entail having the U.S. come out against the Sykes-Picot borders, supporting a break-up of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni countries, incorporating most of Syria, while simultaneously and carefully decimating ISIS leadership. I simply cannot understand why it is in the strategic interest of the U.S. to maintain current Middle Eastern borders, which are unsustainable. I see our current approach as guaranteed to fail.
Terrorism is murder, whether it is in Paris, Copenhagen, or any U.S. town. Every day about 70 Americans are murdered, most by guns. Unless the victims are famous or cute most are ignored by the media. But a minor terrorist attack gets headlines. A YouTube video of a beheading forces the U.S. president to go to " war" in order to avoid being called weak by his domestic political opposition. That's not leadership! Worse, the so-called hawks push for deeper involvement irrespective of military reality. They live in a fantasy world of U.S. military exceptionalism.
To me the issue is not whether we would be better served if the A-10 were being properly employed. Obviously we would be! Ditto [other military-reform concepts], which have always made sense to me. To me the issue is strategy ... and as I see it our use of force is currently counterproductive.
In Gaza the IDF has been able to assassinate Hamas leaders sometimes layers deep. So what! The occupants of Gaza have seen their society all but ripped apart, and they continue to support Hamas. If 125,000 were still employed in Israel instead of Asians I wonder how much support Hamas would have?
If I were a Sunni Arab I would know that when the Syrian Alawite (Shia) used poison gas the U.S. did nothing although thousands were massacred. Yet when two Americans were murdered we bombed Sunnis ... and then we expect Sunnis to love the U.S.
We have got caught up in tactics, and strategy has been caught up in domestic politics. Military reality is nowhere to be found.
I am profoundly worried.
A central argument of my "Tragedy of the American Military" article was that because Americans "honor" their military but don't really take it seriously, we repeatedly send our forces on missions at which they're destined to fail.
The "easy" part of dealing with ISIS is agreeing on its horror. The difficult part is thinking ahead five steps, about what the use of military power can and cannot do. Wood's reporting and Brower's military analysis are valuable steps in that direction.