America's Middle East Problem: What Is the Strategy?

Outskirts of Mosul, November 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Mstyslav Chernov

Accelerating the fight against the Islamic State is creating critical, self-inflicted strategic wounds.

Any action contemplated by the Trump administration should focus intently on strategic outcomes. Tactical operations are to be employed only as a means of accomplishing the commander-in-chief’s national objectives. Based on recent events, however, it is clear that many senior White House and Pentagon officials are unaware of this concept. The “acceleration” of the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) is making tactical advances, but it is also gouging the United States with critical, self-inflicted strategic wounds.

The latest evidence was graphically provided last week when reports surfaced that U.S. air strikes against ISIS in Mosul inadvertently killed more than two hundred innocent civilians. Senior U.S. officials quickly acknowledged American warplanes had attacked the area and promised a full investigation. Their subsequent comments, however, weren’t nearly as helpful.

The U.S. commander for Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, explained that the fighting in Mosul “is the toughest and most brutal close-quarters combat that I have experienced in my thirty four years of service.” But he emphasized that the loss of civilian life did not happen because rules of engagement had been loosened. “What has not changed is our care, our caution,” he continued, “our tolerance from civilian casualties—none of that has changed.”

Reinforcing the general’s statement, U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad Col. Joseph Scrocca, claimed that Washington sets “the highest standards for protecting civilians, and our dedication, diligence and discipline in prosecuting our combat operations, while protecting civilians, is without precedence in the history of warfare.” Understandably, their words provided little comfort or assurance to the surviving family members of the two hundred. Additionally, a Washington Post report filed from the region found that a

sharp rise in the number of civilians reported killed in U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is spreading panic, deepening mistrust and triggering accusations that the United States and its partners may be acting without sufficient regard for lives of noncombatants.

Airwars, a not-for-profit group that tracks and reports on air strikes made by international forces in Iraq, Syria and Libya, had been reporting on civilian casualties inflicted by the Russian and Syrian air forces, but had been “overwhelmed” by reporting on the increase in U.S. strikes in the past two months. For the first time since 2015, U.S. strikes “were responsible for more civilian casualties than Russian strikes.” Moreover, many Iraqi citizens who had been praising the United States and asking for more assistance, were now left in stunned shock trying to understand why so many of them were being killed.

Retired two-star Air Force Gen. Charles J. Dunlap wrote in a Duke University publication following the Mosul air strike that as regrettable as the loss of life was, the full blame for the civilian deaths should be placed on ISIS. He concluded that as unfortunate as the civilian losses were,

even with the most precise weaponry, restrictive rules of engagement, and meticulous adherence to international law, it’s inevitable that more civilians are going to be killed if ISIS is going to be ousted from Mosul… Let’s have the fortitude to see the mission through even as we grieve the cost.

Forty-four-year-old Mosul resident Ebtisam Ataallah, however, has a different point of view: “They killed most of our [neighborhood] for one ISIS member and they didn’t even get him,” Ms. Ataalah told reporters after the air strike. “I don’t understand it.” Her response is typical, and understandable. There is a moral debate that could be held in this situation, both pro and con. But looking at this situation in the hard light of realism, no matter how the moral question is ultimately answered, these sorts of attacks, however tactically effective they may prove to be, do harm to American interests.

The citizens of Iraq and Syria will likely view American military actions as having been employed to kill our own enemies—ISIS—with little concern for how many innocent civilians are killed in the process. Our frequent protestations about how careful we are to prevent civilian casualties fall on deaf ears when hundreds of people are killed in the process of attacking ISIS, places of businesses are turned to rubble and homes are destroyed.