SHOULD THE U.S. NOW PUT BOOTS ON THE GROUND TO HELP DEFEAT ISIS?
Between you, me, and the gate-post, I’m not overly fond of the expression ‘boots-on-the-ground’—and it’s a cliché. On the other hand it conveys its meaning to useful effect—partly because of its lack of precision. In fact, it is pretty much ideal for this propaganda-oriented age. It can be interpreted broadly.
In essence, I understand it to mean ‘conventional troops directly committed to combat’ because training, supposedly, doesn’t count—and special forces tend to be used covertly (whatever that means where the U.S. is concerned).
I have long disagreed with the way U.S. troops are deployed internationally (having well over 800 bases internationally is ridiculous) and am equally opposed to the U.S.’s unhappy habit of drifting almost casually into one seemingly unending conflict after another (many concurrently). However, if the situation genuinely warrants it—in that there is a direct threat to National Security (existential or otherwise) then I do think military action is both justified and necessary.
It was far from clear that ISIS did pose a direct threat to U.S. National Security initially, so President Obama’s caution may well have been justified (whatever one thinks about his overall strategy) but several things are now absolutely clear.
- ISIS not only intends to attack the U.S. and its allies directly, but has the capability to do so (or thinks it has).
- ISIS’s particular brand of Islamic Fundamentalism has global appeal as far as a subset of Muslims is concerned. How large that subset is numerically is open to debate—but even if the percentage is tiny there are so many Muslims, in all, that this could pose a global problem.
- Time allows ISIS to gain more and more followers so the sooner it is contained, and substantially destroyed, the better.
- ISIS’s leaders are smart and adaptable. That means the organization will become more dangerous over time.
- Air power alone will not do the job—either militarily or psychologically.
- The decisive defeat of ISIS militarily will, almost certainly, not end it completely—it is likely to morph into pure terrorism and linger on indefinitely (perhaps under another name)—but it will puncture ISIS’s image of success, and will certainly deter its ability to attract more recruits.
- For all it’s propaganda,ruthlessness, and ferocity, ISIS is neither a major, nor particularly significant, military power. Its main successes so far have been against ineffective Iraqi forces—themselves heavily compromised by the Shia/Sunni divide—or against less than stellar Syrian troops. In contrast, the Kurds, despite lacking the full range of weapons they both need and deserve, have defeated ISIS on a series of occasions.
- The Kurds should be armed directly and comprehensively.
- The future of Iraq and Syria is their current geographic form is debatable in itself, and less important than the destruction of ISIS.
- Getting ride of Syria’s Assad is less important than the destruction of ISIS.
- Turkey’s fear of the Kurds, ambivalence about ISIS, and implacable hostility towards Assad are worth bearing in mind, but, essentially, should not be regarded as pivotal.
One serious problem when it comes to committing U.S. combat troops directly is that the U.S. Army seems to have scant understanding of the principle of economy of force—let alone speed and maneuver. As a consequence, it invariably commits way too many troops—and then spends a disproportionate amount of time protecting them. Though individual units can be outstanding—and both the courage and training of the average soldier are impressive—the overall style of the Army is to be slow, clumsy, and somewhat brutal (though, to be fair, such is the nature of war). That is primarily a leadership issue. It’s my strong impression, based upon substantial exposure to, and involvement with, the Army over the last couple of decades, that the caliber of the generals isn’t up to that of the fighting troops. But, as always, there are exceptions.
A consequence of this tendency to over-commit, combined with a lack of understanding of expeditionary warfare, is that the Army is not good at limited operations. This limits a president’s choices to a major involvement—or no involvement (other than using special forces). That is a serious, and unnecessary, limitation.
Strange as it may seem, the U.S. Army, despite having access to the strongest Air Force in the world, not to mention a substantial force of attack helicopters and some fixed wing (overall larger than any other air force just in itself) hasn’t yet fully adjusted to the implications of fighting in a truly integrated way. By that I mean that it hasn’t yet thought through the basic fact that if one fights in a fully integrated manner, you can do a great deal more with a smaller ground force than would otherwise be the case.
I don’t have access to classified intelligence sources. Nonetheless, based upon what I have read, it is my belief that a U.S. ground force of about 5,000, fully supported from the air, when combined with special forces, and with Kurdish and Iraqi troops, could defeat ISIS decisively with relative ease—providing it avoided the kind of time-wasting and provocative activities that it so loves to indulge in (building large permanent bases and patrolling, for instance).
In practice, it appears virtually certain that both France and the UK would join with a U.S., Kurdish, and Iraqi force.
The next question concerns what should be done with the area after ISIS has been defeated. But that is a blog for another day.