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Double Trouble: American Strategic Options Regarding ISIS

The Buzz

On September 10, President Barak Obama announced that he had ordered the United States military to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State (known as ISIS and ISIL).  He said, “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy…  That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”  Many well-known former US officials, both Democrat and Republican, were quick to share their opinions regarding how the President’s plan might be adjusted to ensure success.  The recommendations offered by a number of these senior officials, however, exposes a troubling lack of understanding of critical on-the-ground fundamentals and an almost disregard for a decade’s worth of physical evidence.  If this advice were to be acted upon in the future, the current bad situation could deteriorate into disaster.

One week after the speech, former Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced his disapproval of the President’s vow that the mission would not result in American “boots on the ground.”  The reality, he said on CBS This Morning, is that “they're not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own…  So there will be boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy.”  Former Democratic President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, shared a very different opinion about the use of ground troops.

On September 23 he told a CNN audience he believed the mission would require “an extended involvement with air power and with providing intelligence and other institutional support to the people who are fighting ISIS… I actually think in this case the…strategy has a chance to succeed…  We don't need to be there on the ground and I don't think it means a land war in Iraq."  There was one important point on which both men agreed: both maintained the mission could succeed if President Obama would only follow their advice.  Current conditions in the region and an analysis of numerous wars and battles over the past two decades, however, suggest that both are wrong.

Consider a few critical facts regarding the situation with ISIS before US airstrikes began.  Many of the members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have a decade or more experience in fighting insurgent and guerilla warfare.  As most know, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has fought against the US in Iraq since 2003.  al-Baghdadi and his men are well acquainted with the capabilities and limitations of American air power, and critically, how to survive it by burrowing deeper into civilian areas.

Further, and of greater significance to the current situation, since 9/11 there has been no location in the world where modern air power – even when complemented with hundreds of thousands of ground troops – has militarily defeated a committed insurgent enemy.  The list is long and painful: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and others.

Many in recent months have argued that the 2007 surge in Iraq “set the conditions” for success in Iraq, but the Obama Administration’s inability to keep 10,000 US troops there after 2011 was, as former Army General Jack Keane recently said, “an absolute strategic failure.” Such claims, however, do not stand up to examination.  An analysis of the 2007 Iraq surge and scrutiny of the current situation in Afghanistan explains why this claim is dubious at best.

In combination with the tactical cooperation of Sunni tribes, the 2007 Iraq surge succeeded in reducing the violence by the near-destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  But as has been well chronicled in recent weeks, AQI wasn’t destroyed.  It merely limped off to reform itself, learned from its mistakes, and renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).  In 2013 ISI moved across the border into Syria to fight in the civil war, changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by February of this year launched an offensive, eventually capturing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

As I explained in a 2010 analysis, however, it wasn’t primarily the 20,000 additional ground troops the US sent to Baghdad that dramatically reduced the violence.  Then-Colonel Sean MacFarland was the commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division said, “I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaida. Maybe 75 to 80 percent of the credit for the success of the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaida and joined us in common cause… But if the Iraqi Sunnis had remained allied with al-Qaida against us, we would not have been able to achieve anything lasting or of strategic consequence.”

Even as most Western eyes were riveted on events in Iraq this summer, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated rapidly.  In a 1 October 2014 report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman assessed the current situation in Afghanistan:  “Afghanistan is still the forgotten war at a time when the Taliban is making steady gains, civilian casualties are rising, the Afghan economy is in crisis, and there still are no clear plans for any post-2014 aspect of transition,” he wrote.  “The current realities on the ground strongly indicate that the present US approach to Transition in Afghanistan will fail at the military, political, economic, and governance levels.”

The Taliban has made these troubling gains despite the fact that, according to official NATO figures, as of September 3 there were still 28,970 American troops in Afghanistan (and a total of 41,124 NATO troops).  It is unclear upon what logic some claim that 10,000 Americans in Baghdad would have prevented ISIS from rising, when over 40,000 NATO troops and approximately 350,000 Afghan National Army troops have proven unable to prevent the Taliban from rising.

So long as an insurgent force is willing to die for their cause and the population is unwilling to turn against them, it could take more than a decade before one side or the other – or both – are exhausted to the point a negotiated settlement ends the fighting.  The ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria still has yet to reach even stasis, as illustrated by recent gains in northern Syria at Kobani and in eastern Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad.  This extension of territory has come despite now weeks of US and allied airpower.  These gains provide stark evidence of why former President Clinton’s strategic advice of using indigenous ground troops with allied air power cannot succeed: whether it’s been the rebels in Syria, the Peshmerga in Kurdish areas, or Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq, all have proven incapable of standing firm.

I have served a total of four combat deployments in my career.  In 2009 I served as a military trainer for an Iraqi border battalion, and in 2011 on the ground throughout Afghanistan.  It is my opinion, based on all the available evidence and my own experience that if the United States follows the recommendations of either President Clinton or Secretary Gates, mission failure is the most likely outcome.

If using American air power in conjunction with unsuccessful and untrained ground fighters is likely to fail, and sending in highly trained US ground troops would likely result in a long term, bloody, and ultimately inclusive outcome, what options exist?

It is paramount that the United States set strategic objectives that can be reasonably attained.  In this current messy environment, I would recommend that the US repurpose its allied airpower to the establishment of a no-go zone some number of kilometers around all ISIS-controlled areas for the purpose of isolating ISIS and pinning it to its current territory; any ISIS forces or military vehicles that enter the zone without permission would be destroyed.  This no-go zone would be established via coordination with the US, Baghdad, and Ankara.  The Syrian regime would be informed of the location of the no-go zone in the northeastern part of their country and warned to keep their air force and ground troops from interfering or suffer a blistering coalition attack.

We would put diplomatic pressure on all the nations that border ISIS areas to effectively, aggressively control all effective logistic routes into and out of ISIS territory.  If there is a theoretical danger to the United States of ISIS-sponsored terror strikes, it is important to note the nations in and around ISIS territory face a far greater, direct threat.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular should deploy considerable numbers of ground troops at their borders to seal it so ISIS is unable to get sufficient amounts of the war-making material they need.  We might also encourage Baghdad and Riyadh to consider bolstering Iraqi troops with limited Saudi ground forces if it appears Iraq cannot adequately defend its capital city with its own troops.

Part of our diplomatic efforts should center on requiring the regional nations with the most to lose by a successful ISIS to put more skin in the game.  It appears some nations are content to let the United States expend its resources, spill its blood, in the defense of their national and regional interests.  The United States can provide the leadership and spearhead the establishment of the no-go zone, but we should insist the regional powers provide the ground troops necessary to enforce the zone and stabilize the current forward lines of contact."

Furthermore, we should increase our economic pressure on ISIS by aggressively seeking out all who do business with them and place uncomfortable pressure, if necessary, on such entities to sever ties with it.

As President Obama has already pledged, we should combine an aggressive and honest counter-social media campaign with robust Arab-led humanitarian support for all civil populations under ISIS domination for the purpose of demonstrating our support for the people.

At the same time, the United States should do more than merely ask Baghdad to form a more inclusive government; we must insist upon it.  If the United States is willing to expend its treasure, resources, and potentially blood in defense of Iraqi sovereignty (again), we must condition support on specified political developments; if ever the Sunni population in occupied areas are to turn against ISIS, they will have to be convinced Baghdad would not again abuse and marginalize them.

The ISIS fighters and leadership, meanwhile, will be denied the ability to fight their opponents on their terms.  Instead, if they venture out into the no-go zones, they will be destroyed on our terms.  As has already begun to occur, in time ISIS itself will so alienate the people under their domination – as well as some among their own group – that they lose the support or acquiescence of the local populations.  If ISIS loses the security of a pliant population and the people concurrently begin to believe their legitimate government is genuinely going to look out for their interests and give them freedoms and protections promised, ISIS’ support will eventually collapse.

It is crucial that the United States and regional nations not merely “service targets” from the air but actively seek to reduce the underlying causes of instability.  If we fail to do so, then even if by some miracle we eventually succeeded in militarily destroying ISIS, it would be a pyric victory: there would be no shortage of other groups ready and willing to take their place.  We must end the cycle of violence by applying comprehensive political, diplomatic, economic and social measures; military power has a role to play, but if the intent is to resolve the instability, military must take a subordinate role.

There has been so much damage, so many deaths, so much anguish suffered by so many, over such a long time that at this point even the best solution would require years of consistent application to bring general stability to Iraq and the Middle East at large.  But we must avoid choosing courses of action that analysis and evidence clearly indicate will likely fail.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the US Army.  He has deployed into combat zones four times, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm, and in 2012 was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

The opinions contained in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Army.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

Nuclear North Korea's Next Nightmare: A Succession Crisis?

The Buzz

Kim’s back on deck, albeit walking with a cane. His reappearance recently brought to an end a 40-day absence from public view, during which speculation ran rampant about what might have caused it. In response to his reappearance, international media seem to have set aside half-wishful thoughts that he might have been overthrown and returned to a theme of all’s-well-that-ends-well in Pyongyang. But it’s worth unpacking the issue of the missing Kim just a little more. True, no regime change occurred. Still, the absence was so poorly handled by the North there might well be other issues in play here besides Kim Jong-un’s health. Perhaps future absences beckon. In any event, Kim’s health matters—it’s tied up with both his authority in North Korea and the broader issue of the post-Kim North Korea.

During the leader’s absence from public view, North Korean media suggested that Kim was undergoing a course of medical treatment and had been experiencing “discomfort.” Speculation about the source of that discomfort ran thick and fast, including gout, diabetes, strained tendons, and ankle injuries. But given the unusual political circumstances of North Korea—Kim’s a young dictator trying to lock down his succession in a country about whose inner-circle politics we know almost nothing—it’s not entirely surprising that other, more sinister, explanations also received an airing. It’s probably true that if Kim Jong-un’s going to be toppled, that’ll occur while he’s still settling into the job—because if he makes it through the early years he’ll probably be there for decades. So any unexplained absence of the leader is bound to draw attention—hence the occasional bursts of black humor that Kim’s discomfort might have been caused by a “nine-millimeter headache.”

But there was always a large element of wishful thinking in believing that a regime change had unfolded in North Korea without anyone noticing. And throughout Kim’s absence, as Susan Rice, the US National Security Adviser said at the weekend, there was no actual evidence that he’d been deposed: no signs of a power struggle; no tanks in the streets of Pyongyang. Even the short-notice visit of a high-powered delegation to Seoul suggested that someone was in control and making the principal decisions.

But Kim’s absence matters in ways that go beyond the simple possibility of regime change. So far the image Kim Jong-un’s been building is of an energetic, youthful leader—a decisive personality able to wait out his enemies both foreign and domestic. Tennyson said that authority forgets a dying king, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it has at least some short-term memory lapses about a debilitated one. A prolonged absence—or repeated absences—will do more than feed international speculation about whether dark deeds have been perpetrated by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick. It’ll paint inside North Korea the picture of a vulnerable leader. That’d be a problem for Kim—and not especially helpful for the rest of us hoping to see clear North Korean decisions in relation to a resumption of talks about the North’s nuclear program and a “grand bargain” about the program’s dismantlement.

Moreover, we shouldn’t overlook the bigger questions concerning the future of leadership in North Korea. Here, I would recommend readers have a look at Scott Snyder’s excellent post. Kim’s young: he has no heir in the traditional line of succession, and won’t have one for at least a couple of decades. During his absence, media tended to focus a little more upon his sister, Kim Yo Jong. But most of her influence probably derives from her brother. In short, for many years to come Kim’s going to be staring down the barrel of a succession crisis, with no obvious successor.

Kim’s recent absence is a potent reminder of the political difficulties that a dictatorship like North Korea confronts. And yes, we’re talking here about the future leadership of a nuclear-armed country. The issue’s a serious and multi-layered one: thinking about Kim’s absence in the “Where’s Wally?” framework doesn’t quite capture it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist where this piece first appeared

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

The Air War Against ISIS: The Deciding Factor

The Buzz

On the first night of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, U.S. warplanes were not alone. They were accompanied by several others in the anti-ISIS coalition, including fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is a big deal.

Over several decades, the United States has provided advanced equipment and world-class training for partner nations, including the five mentioned above. These investments have been controversial at times, but now they are having significant payoffs. The continued participation of Middle Eastern states in anti-ISIS operations is crucial for their long-term success, and it has far-reaching implications for U.S. leadership throughout the world.

With U.S. help, these air forces have made tremendous progress. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have purchased very capable aircraft from the United States. UAE F-16s, for example, are superior in many respects to the United States’ legacy F-16s. In addition to providing advanced equipment, the United States has encouraged participation in the most realistic training exercises, including the flagship Red Flag exercise in Nevada (where I had the opportunity to observe U.A.E. training personally).

Another major development is the Gulf Air Warfare Center in U.A.E., which has grown steadily since its establishment in 2000 to become a leader in tactical training. Its “Iron Falcon”exercise comes complete with dedicated aircraft that act as the enemy, excellent planning and briefing facilities, and tracking and debriefing technology that allows the participants to visualize how the battle unfolded—and identify what they could do better.

The payoff for these investments came last month when Middle Eastern air forces participated in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. As a U.S. Air Force weapons and tactics instructor, I have helped to plan numerous raids and strikes similar to this one. Prior to my experiences with partner nations at Red Flag, I would have argued against having them participate on a first-night strike where precise execution is critical for both safety and mission accomplishment. I simply would not have trusted the Middle Eastern air forces to be where they were supposed to be.

My opinion of them changed as I watched their growth in realistic training scenarios. These air forces prepared well in peacetime, and when war came, they were ready. They have acquitted themselves well against ISIS, and their performance shows how much progress they have made since partnering with the United States.

Solid tactics cannot win wars in the absence of good strategy; this is another reason why these nations’ participation is critical. If we are to “destroy” ISIS, it will not be accomplished with military power. Instead, the ideology that fuels ISIS must be soundly rejected by people around the world, and most importantly, it must be disavowed by Sunnis in the Middle East. Having adherents of Sunni Islam participate in attacking ISIS sends a powerful message to the rest of the Sunni world that the teachings of ISIS are flat wrong. It also sent a message to others that Middle Eastern countries are willing to stand against ISIS, making it much more palatable to join a coalition that has now grown to over forty members.

As they participate in operations against ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are also sending a very important message to Iran, their neighbor across the Gulf. These countries now have very credible air defenses—in many ways superior to Iran’s—that are interoperable with western countries such as the United States and France, as well as with each other. This creates a powerful balancing effect in the Gulf, one that works to stabilize the world economy.

This success also enhances U.S. credibility with our allies and potential partners. As we look forward to an increasingly interconnected world where instability in far-flung places can have global implications, developing effective partnerships is crucial, because the United States cannot be everywhere all the time. Over years of building partnerships around the globe, we have proven that the U.S. is a good “friend.” This year, U.S. Airmen have helped to increase the capabilities of air forces around the globe, including in exercises such as Max Thunder in Korea, Commando Sling and Pitch Black in Australia, Red Flag-Alaska in the Pacific, and the Tactical Leadership Program in NATO. In addition, the main Red Flag program in Nevada continues to host our partners. These programs have developed positive momentum, and they are working well.

Finally, several press reports highlighted the fact that the UAE flight leader on the first night of airstrikes was female. This brings up a more subtle point: it is not inconsequential that UAE military leaders have watched female fighter pilots from the United States perform on an equal level with their male counterparts in demanding training scenarios. Every time a member of the U.S. military interacts with our partners, it provides an opportunity to influence them for good. Our people provide living examples of how a professional military can show deference to civilian leaders, provide opportunities for its members, and treat all with dignity and respect. This potent combination of hard and soft power works to lift up others, which is both in our self interest and the right thing to do. We need to keep doing it.

Colonel Clint Hinote, U.S. Air Force, is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in military strategy, and he recently returned from Korea, where he commanded the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Defense in Depth here

TopicsISIS RegionsUnited States

America's Real Pivot: Time For a Treaty Alliance With Vietnam?

The Buzz

Last week, after the Obama administration’s decision to begin selling Vietnam limited amounts of lethal arms, a shift in the policy that has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, I noted in a blog post that I believed the administration had made the right move, despite Vietnam’s serious—and worsening—rights abuses. Administration officials note that any further lethal arms sales, and closer relations with Vietnam and the Vietnamese military, will be contingent on Vietnam making progress in tolerating dissent of all types. Indeed, according to a report on the lethal arms sales in the New York Times:

The State Department emphasized that the policy change applied only to maritime surveillance and “security-related” systems and asserted that the decision reflected modest improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record.

I actually don’t think that there is any evidence of improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record at all in recent years; this is just a convenient fiction to placate those in Congress who are opposed to selling lethal arms because of Hanoi’s rights record. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s own annual country report on Vietnam notes no real improvements in human rights in the past year, and summarizes the situation in Vietnam by saying that “the most significant human rights problems in the country continued to be severe government restrictions on citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government; increased measures to limit citizens’ civil liberties; and corruption in the judicial system and police.”

Still, although I think that overall the administration has badly ignored human rights and democracy promotion in its strategy of re-engagement with Southeast Asia, I think Washington needs to build much closer ties with Vietnam no matter the country’s rights record. I am hardly a realist, but this is one time realpolitik should win out. For one, boosting lethal arms sales may help position the pro-United States faction with the Vietnamese leadership to gain strength vis-à-vis the more pro-China faction in the leadership. Several Vietnamese academics and officials say that the pro-China faction in Vietnam’s leadership is already on its heels, due to increasing China-Vietnam conflict over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

More specifically, the United States should build on its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam and work toward a formal treaty alliance with Hanoi. Besides ending the ban on selling lethal arms to Vietnam, the United States should work toward expanding access for American naval vessels at Cam Ranh Bay, expanding training programs for senior Vietnamese officers, and institutionalizing the annual United States–Vietnam strategic dialogue at a higher level, ensuring that the secretary of defense and his Vietnamese counterpart participates in the strategic dialogue annually.

Working toward a treaty alliance with Vietnam would be central to maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia, protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and finding new ports and potential forward operating bases for the U.S. military as domestic political concerns in Japan and Thailand threaten military relationships with these states. For Vietnam, closer ties with the United States would allow the Vietnamese military to rapidly upgrade its equipment, would ensure close trade relations with Washington, and would provide the kind of security against an assertive China that, it appears, ASEAN could never offer.

Let’s drop the false rationale of an improving human rights record in Vietnam and call this relationship what it is: a strategic partnership that could be critical to both countries’ interests in Asia.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

Image: Department of Defense Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why the Bombing Campaign in Syria Isn't Working Well

Paul Pillar

The U.S. air war in Syria has not gotten off to an encouraging start. For many observers the principal indicator of that is a lack of setbacks for ISIS, as the group continues to besiege a Kurdish-held town near the Turkish border. We ought to be at least as discouraged, however, by the negative reactions to the airstrikes from the “moderate” Syrian opposition groups that the strikes are supposed to help and in whom so much hope is being placed if U.S. policy toward the Syrian conflict is to begin to make any sense. Harakat Hazm, a group considered sufficiently moderate and effective to have received the first shipments of U.S.-made anti-tank weapons, called the U.S. campaign “a sign of failure whose devastation will spread to the whole region.”

It is early in that campaign, of course, and if searching hard enough one can also find some more encouraging signs. The airstrikes in Iraq still have more support. And ISIS in Syria at least seems to have seen the necessity of lowering its visibility in places it controls such as Raqqa—although its blending even more closely into the civilian population will make future airstrikes that much harder to do.

Despite administration statements about having to think in long-haul terms, patience in Washington will wear thin amid meager results. Pressures for escalation will increasingly be felt. In response to comments from opposition groups about how the airstrikes are insufficiently coordinated with, and have not aided, their operations on the ground, expect to hear more talk in Washington about a need for putting U.S. personnel on that ground.

That sort of talk ought to be met with a reminder of the fundamental reasons—the inconvenient facts of the Syrian situation that constitute a still-unsquared circle—that will continue to make for poor results.

One reason is the multidimensional nature of the Syrian conflict, in which in the absence of a credible Syrian political alternative the United States has in effect taken the side of a Syrian regime that it supposedly still wants to oust, and in which the opposition groups in which the United States has placed its faith have significantly different priorities from Washington. Opposition groups have been particularly critical of the United States targeting of the Al-Nusra Front, which is an understandable target for the United States given that group's status as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, but which many of the other groups have seen as an effective ally in the fight against the Assad regime.

Another reason is the inevitable damage and resulting anger and resentment from airstrikes, even though high-tech U.S. weapons are far more discriminating than the Syrian regime's barrel bombs. Some of the resentment-generating impact of the US. strikes so far has been indirect and economic rather than direct and kinetic. Attacks on targets such as oil refineries, power plants, and granaries have caused shortages and price rises that have hurt civilians at least as much as they have impeded ISIS.

And related to that is the potential for the United States to make itself a bigger issue in Syria than either ISIS or the regime. There already are worrisome signs that Al-Nusra and ISIS are repairing their breach from last year and campaigning in tandem against the U.S. intervention by portraying it as a war against Islam.                            

TopicsSyria RegionsMiddle East

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