Russia intervened in Syria, did what it came to do–strengthen the position of the Assad government–and has partially withdrawn.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.