The View From Olympus: Futility, or War by Plinking

Russia intervened in Syria, did what it came to do–strengthen the position of the Assad government–and has partially withdrawn. Meanwhile, our war with ISIS continues its endless futility, an inevitable result of war by pinking.

War by plinking, using airstrikes that blow up an ammo dump here, an ISIS leader there, and wedding parties everywhere is largely a product of futility of thought. We think we have to do something, but our military leadership has few options to offer. We can invade, but as we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing so merely increases the scope and cost of our defeat. We can carry out an aerial campaign of annihilation, but our civilian leadership’s ideology forbids it. It might also generate new enemies faster than we can kill them, no matter how many bombs we drop. Approaches that require both imagination and skill cannot make it through our leaden, elephantine military decision process (where the process is the product). So we plink.

Much of our plinking seems devoted to war by assassination. There is a reason states have generally avoided that. As I fear we may discover, it is a game two can play. In the end it devolves, as it has, to mere war of attrition. Wars of attrition are usually indecisive, continuing until one party or another, or both, are exhausted. we are likely to tire before ISIS does.

It is possible to conveive a different approach, one that still makes use of plinking, since that is all our military can do, but puts it in a different context where it might actually bring positive results.

The new context is one I have discussed before, namely trying to disaggregate ISIS as an organization. Like most large entities, ISIS is a coalition. It has elements we cannot work with, i.e. the Islamic puritans, and other elements we can work with (and have in the past) such as the Baathists. If we can pull the coalition apart, we might win a decisive victory.

With that objective, our aerial plinking wold become more selective. Instead of just targeting ISIS leaders randomly, we would be as careful about not hitting some as we would be about hitting others. Looked at broadly, we would target the puritans but not the Baath. More detailed intelligence analysis would help us avoid other leaders beyond the Baath whom we might work with, and also target competent puritans but not incompetent ones. When we kill incompetent enemy leaders, we do the enemy a favor.

Plinking alone is not likely to disaggregate ISIS. It would need to be combined with other actions, most of them clandestine. Funneling money to non-puritan leaders and factions within ISIS would probably be part of the new approach. So would assurances that they could create a Sunni state. Few things motivate Sunnis to fight more than the prospect of being ruled by Shiites.

A strategy of disaggregation requires good intelligence. Whether our intelligence agencies can provide it I do not know. But I am reasonably certain someone can. That someone might be the Russians, or the Assad government, or Iraqi Sunnis we used to work with and still probably want dollars (from us, not through the Shiite Iraqi government).

Disaggregating ISIS offers at least a chance of moving beyond futility. We probably will not grasp at that chance because we are focused on marching the march of folly. Barbara Tuchman defined folly as proceeding on course of almost certain failure when other, more promising courses were available. That is what we have been doing since we invaded Afghanistan (a country at or near the top of history’s “Do Not Invade” list), and what we will continue to do so long as the Establishment is in power. Pray for a Trump/Sanders ticket. favicon

3 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: Futility, or War by Plinking”

  1. Interesting post as usual. However, what if the United States is not really serious about fighting ISIS? I mean, we pretty much created them by destroying the central governments in Iraq and Libya, and degrading the central government in Syria. We have given arms and supplies to radical jihadists, including branches of Al Qaeda (!! Why are not more Americans outraged? I still don’t get that). Apparently also ISIS had vast lines of tankers shipping oil for sale into Turkey, that would have been clearly visible by satellite – we ignored this, until the Russians took them out. Doesn’t sound like we were really serious about fighting ISIS, does it?

    I would propose that it’s not so much ‘plinking’ that our military is good at, as destabilization. Conquest is hard. Governance is hard. Spreading chaos is easy. Perhaps the American government is not failing, but achieving exactly what it has intended all along…

  2. My pov:

    Destroying the ISIS coalition is indeed a very important thing. ISIS is composed of the following factions:

    1: Militant Salafists. These are often Saudi inspired. If the US actually used its muscle to crack down on Saudi support for it (Saudi Arabia has no options other then the USA for protection. Russia has no interest in obtaining the Saudis as Vasalls, and would weep exactly zero tears if the Iranians move in to settle some scores), these Salafists would lose own of their main selling points, cold hard Saudi cash.

    2: Iraqi ex Baathists. Basically, they were betrayed by everyone. They are deeply fucked, backed into a corner, surrounded by people who have really good reasons to kill them and they have managed to piss off the other Baathists, those being the Syrians, as well. Cooperating with them will be much harder then it sounds. Unless there are credible promises of protection from the Shia, Kurds, and various Syrians who by now want vengeance as well, they will not move away from the Salafists.

    3: North Caucasian Jihad professionals: Omar al Shishani (Omar the Chechen) is ISIS top commander. His brother is ISIS finance minister, and crack Chechen troops (who fight a lot better then Arabs for a number of reasons) are what ISIS uses to put out fires. Now, these could be separated from the Salafists, but only with moves that would greatly antagonize Russia. Russia is partly in Syria to kill them and happens to be very serious about that. One should add that ISIS is not the top destination for North Caucasian Salafists. Many of these prefer Nusra or Ahrar al Sham (joining ISIS means accepting Bagdadi as Caliph, and thus as supreme authority, and to effectively kneel before him. Chechens arent big on kneeling)

    4: Local Sunnite tribes who made opportunistic alliances with whoever is powerful:
    They can be split away indeed, Russia is busy doing that. Very busy as a matter of fact. Degrading local Islamist coalitions by separating some of their members from the rest (for example by bombing everyone in a coalition other then the group you want to separate, thus creating a belief of impending betrayal and causing massive friction).

    5: Non Syrian Adventurers. Most of these are, in the Syrian context, Tunisians and not westerners. Westerners are used for PR (many are totally worthless on a battlefield), and often there is some intra rebel dick measuring of who got the most western idiots to sign up for them. A reason why Tunisia is less fucked up right now is that they dumped much of their hard core islamists on Syria. It will be interesting when those islamists return.

    These are pretty unpopular in Syria, especially with the local Sunni tribes. I think the split between non Syrian adventurers and local tribes is easiest to do. The other 3 pillars of ISIS are in 2 cases (Chechens and Baathists) quite competent and the Salafists are zealots who are difficult to turn. The Chechens could be enticed to move to “greener pastures” which is what they will do once things go south. But right now, if you are a Chechen Islamist, and have a choice between fighting the Russian army and fighting what is called the Iraqi army, or the Syrian arab army, the choice is very obvious.
    They are already preparing for a new Libyian adventure btw. because there is no army at all.

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