Recent successes in the wars with the Taliban and with ISIS should be viewed cautiously. The first comes with strong downsides and the second may not be all they seem.
The success against the Taliban was the assassination by drone strike of the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. At one level, this certainly hurts the Taliban. Mansour had only recently succeeded in consolidating his position, and now someone else will face that difficult task all over again.
But as is so often the case in Fourth Generation war, the upside and the downside are the same. It is as important to us as to the Taliban that the new consolidation effort succeed.
The tendency in 4GW is for endless fracturing. First the state fractures, then the original factions fracture, and the fracturing goes on until no one controls more than the area he can see. Obviously, this makes the task of re-creating a state ever more difficult. But from our perspective, we only win when a new state–a real state, not a Potemkin village like the current Iraqi “state”–emerges. From that perspective, if the Taliban fractures (and it has increasingly strong tendencies in that direction) our victory becomes less probable.
By killing Mullah Mansour on Pakistani territory without Pakistani approval, we have yet again undermined the fragile legitimacy of that state of Pakistan. We should remember at all times that if the Pakistani state fails, we will suffer a far worse defeat than any possible failure in Afghanistan. We complain that Pakistan has de facto allied with the Taliban, but the government in Kabul which we created has given Pakistan no choice. In a prime example of strategic idiocy, the Afghan government has aligned with India. That is a mortal threat to Pakistan. If we want Pakistan to de-align with the Taliban, we must convince Kabul to de-align with India. The U.S. State Department seems clueless about this basic fact.
If all this seems to raise the question, “If every actions we take, even when it succeeds, generates so much blow-back, what can we do?”, that is how Fourth Generation war works. Every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. Often, while our action is on the physical level, the reaction is on the mental or moral levels, which are more powerful. So it all blows up in our face. What should we do? Stay out of Fourth Generation wars on other peoples’ soil.
The second success that should raise caution signs is that of the Iraqi Shiite government in re-taking some towns from ISIS. ISIS’s MO is classic Arab light cavalry warfare. Light cavalry has little ability to hold terrain. ISIS may have created local militias in Fallujah that will fight to hold that city, because they live there and they are Sunnis. They know the Baghdad government treats all Sunnis as enemies, giving the locals little choice but to fight (ISIS won’t let them flee, and if they do escape, the ring around Fallujah is manned by Shiite militias who often kill Sunnis on the spot.).
But ISIS’s real response is more light cavalry warfare in the form of increased suicide bombings against Shiite areas in Baghdad. These mass casualty events undermine the shaky legitimacy of the Iraqi government. ISIS is focusing on areas loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr; in response, Sadr’s supporters have twice invaded the Green Zone. ISIS’s counter-offensive may prove more effective than the Iraqi government’s counter-offensive against ISIS, bringing down the Iraqi government before it can get very far in its struggle to take Iraqi territory back from ISIS.
Here the action-reaction nature of 4GW may hit back at ISIS. If the current Iraqi government falls and is replaced by a government under Muqtada al-Sadr, that could blow up in ISIS’s face. My information is that al-Sadr, has maintained long-standing ties to Iraq’s Sunnis. He might be able to offer them a safe place in a reunited Iraqi state. If so, ISIS would lose its Iraqi base, which is always fatal in politics. And 4GW is armed politics.
I have said for many years that in the end, I expect Muqtada al-Sadr to walk off with all the marbles in Iraq. Our incompetent foreign policy establishment would be appalled, but it might be the best thing that could happen to us. Remember, we only win if in the end a real state is re-established in place of the one we idiotically destroyed. If al-Sadr can deliver that, he is potentially our most effective ally.