Avoiding the Long War Redux
As bombs and missiles have begun to drop in ISIS strongholds in northern Syria, military experts are warning that the air campaign will be measured in months, if not years, and that a ground campaign must certainly follow. President Obama said as much in his address announcing the commencement of the campaign against the IS.
The Obama plan cannot be considered a strategy yet--significant pieces are missing. It was formed as much if not more so from domestic political realities and those constraints rather than what is necessary to defeat the IS. It is in part why there are two separate, though complementary, missions to destroy the IS in Iraq and to degrade it in Syria.
Destruction of the IS cannot be done by airpower alone, and there are some questions of how much of it can be degraded by airstrikes. In this context, air power can be likened to trying to swat a pesky fly with a hammer – but given the number of flies and their geographic spread, an area the size of the United Kingdom, this can be a wearisome and lengthy process.
Based on how many sorties were flown over Libya, we can surely expect the air campaign to last between six months to well over a year and that was with a proxy ground force provided by the National Transition Council. There is no such ground force in Syria or even in Iraq and so we are once again facing a long war.
Above all it is the duration of our engagements overseas, the years in Iraq and Afghanistan without satisfactory conclusions, and the billions that were spent, that have soured western publics to any sort of overseas military engagements, especially those which feature the commitment of ground forces.
Facing the threat that the Islamic State evinces--with its beheadings, its pre-medieval use of crucifixions, the purposeful elimination of non-adherents in their midst and the subjugation of what remains to servitude--has galvanized nations and people to act, notwithstanding their visceral reluctance to do so. People understand that the IS, wrapped in a cocoon of quasi-statehood represents a danger if left untouched.
In the towns and cities it holds, an entire new generation of youth is being schooled in the Islamic State’s sanguinary curriculum of terror. It isn’t our intervention that will make more martyrs and converts; it is our non-intervention that will.
In response, a coalition that includes Arab states, puts an end to the question “why it’s always only us”. The participation of regional Sunni states is helping defy the narrative that it is the West against Islam.
However, military action is not inexpensive. The estimates from the United States are that this will cost between seven to ten million dollars a day, or $3.6bn dollars a year, not including contributing nation costs.
Unlike the Second World War, where spending supported mobilization and increased hiring, modern wars do not produce the same economic effect and monies spent on long wars could be directed for more productive uses.
President Eisenhower in his famous parting speech said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Beyond fiscal cost, there is a further societal cost to consider at home.
In the 19th century, Robert E. Lee opined that warfare should be fierce lest we grow too fond of it. A century later in 2004, the historian Niall Ferguson was struck by the festive atmosphere in Las Vegas, while the U.S. Army was slogging it out in Iraq. Video of antiseptic, high tech missile strikes, mesmerizing us with their precision will become part of our daily fare of news, in a similar fashion to the day’s box scores and traffic reports. It is Orwellian in its imagery, where a society is in perpetual war but disengaged from it. Along with that separation is the inescapable reality that prolonged war produces a drain on the national spirit the longer that conflict endures.
This is not an argument to avoid going to war against ISIS, in fact it is quite the opposite.
The quicker ISIS can be decisively degraded if not destroyed the better. This requires a punishing air campaign coupled with a ground force follow up. Instead of one hammer employ many and end this military intervention quickly.
The air campaign, appears to be under-resourced compared to what established the winning conditions for Desert Storm for example; as if the coalition is hoping that precision will replace the persistent coverage that only mass can provide. While an air campaign answers the public perception of action it cannot fully succeed on its own. That is exactly what coalition leaders must openly discuss and confront.
The Obama plan recognizes the need for a ground campaign; It is short on detail on who will do that making this only a plan at the moment and not a strategy.
The mainly conventional nature of the ISIS enemy, the terrain and, a long secure allied border with Turkey mean that a ground campaign could be conducted with lighting speed.
In Gulf War One the air campaign lasted five weeks, and the ground operation liberating Kuwait was completed in 100 hours. The point being that success is possible if aims are limited to the destruction of the IS, and not a mission to establish government or re-establish civil society by military means.
The end of conflict in Gulf War One is also instructive, as there was no “complicated” exit strategy. When Kuwait was liberated, the troops came home. Limited objectives, clear goals and a short war are the lessons to be drawn.
Two divisions, of a well-led modern mechanised force preferably US led that would not exceed 50,000 should have no difficulty advancing North on a Baghdad, Mosul axis, then swinging west driving to Lake al Assad as its limit of exploitation.