President Obama’s strategy for war with ISIS, announced last Wednesday, appears to be dead on arrival. The recognition of its immense gap between ends and means has been almost universal. So has the perception that many of its assumptions are baseless.
The plan has virtually no support within the U.S. military, which recognizes it is a pipe dream. The Army’s senior leadership, which sees that the strategy would ultimately result in another major land war, is cackling like MacBeth’s witches around their pot over the prospect of a bigger budget. Sorry, guys; the American people will not support another major land war on the far side of the world.
Part of the reason President Obama’s strategy is D.O.A. is the obvious fact that our air power has no effective force to work with on the ground, outside Kurdistan. The “moderate” Syrian opposition is a fantasy. An op ed in the September 16 New York Times by Ahmad Samih Khalidi, an academic now teaching at Oxford, notes that
The alleged moderates have never put together a convincing national program or offered a viable alternative to Mr. Assad. The truth is that there are no “armed moderates” (or “moderate terrorists”) in the Arab world–and precious few beyond. The genuine “moderates” won’t
take up arms, and those who do are not truly moderates. Within Iraq, given the recent collapse of the Iraqi Army, we would depend on Shiite militias to provide the ground forces. One of the better-trained of those militias, Kataib Hezbollah, said, according to a story on page 11 of the same New York Times, “We will not fight alongside the American troops under any kind of conditions whatsoever.” Its only contact with Americans would be “if we fight each other.”
So obvious are the unrealities in President Obama’s strategy that it has elicited laughter. The same Times story quotes Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Kamenei (remember, Iran is on our side against ISIS), as saying “he had ‘a hobby,’ which was ‘listening to Americans making statements on combating ISIS–it was really amusing.'” The Arab states’ guffaw came in the form of offering air power, which the U.S. military has in vast surplus. It is as if Dr. Johnson, told one day in the Literary Club that the city of Newcastle had asked him to stand on his head, replied “Why no, sir, I shall not refuse them. I shall offer them instead a shipment of coals!”
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration is backing away from its “strategy” as fast as it can. A front-page story in the Sept. 15 Times said, “In interviews and public statements, administration and military officials described a battle plan that would not accelerate in earnest until disparate groups of Iraqi forces, Kurds, and Syrian rebels stepped up to provide the fighting forces on the ground.” Since that is likely to happen soon after the return of the Twelfth Imam, it is a condition that effectively scuttles the whole thing, beyond some meaningless air strikes.
Encouragingly, some thoughtful voices are daring to ask in public whether ISIS is a threat to us at all. We may end up turning it into one, but at present, it is not. It is part of the ongoing, expanding Sunni-Shiite civil war, in which our only interest is in seeing both sides kill each other in the largest possible numbers. If President Obama feels compelled to “do something” about ISIS for political reasons, he could act as I suggested in an earlier column. A massive, suprise air strike on ISIS’s capital of Raqqa, intended to reduce the whole place to rubble in an hour, would be accepted by the American public as suitable retaliation for ISIS’s killing of two Americans. Obama might actually find himself popular again.
A long footnote: In my last column, I noted that the Pentagon should be able to give the pesident the option of sending a small, competent, fast-moving ground force that could rout ISIS in a campaign of days, or, at most, weeks. In theory this force exists, in the form of three Marine Corps Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) battalions. The original concept behind the LAV (I know because I am one of the three people who, as a staffer to Senator Gary Hart, initiated the LAV program; the other two were a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer, Steve Dotson, and a Marine one-star named Al Gray) was to create one or more LAV regiments that could serve as Soviet-style Operations Maneuver Groups in third-world situations. Only once in the 25-plus years since have the LAV battalions been used this way, when they were grouped for an operational advance on Tikrit immediately after the fall of Baghdad. We should not go in on the ground against ISIS, but should the president decide to do so, that would be the way to do it. It would require a commander who knows operational art from pachinko, of which we have very few. But one who could easily do it is Marine four-star General John Kelly. By putting a four-star in charge, the Pentagon would ensure the LAV operational maneuver group got support when it needed it. Pitting regular light cavalry against irregular light cavalry in a campaign of rapid maneuver, the regulars should easily come out on top, if only because their skill at techniques should be much higher. Of course, if the president were to ask the Pentagon for this option, it would immediately say it is impossible, because a success by a small, fast force using maneuver warfare would not justify larger budgets and force structures. At senior levels, the budget war is the only war that matters.