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February 18, 2015

Questions About More Military Action From An Interventionist Skeptic

With President Barack Obama finally submitting a draft Authorization For Use Of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS to Congress, the question of America’s role in the fight will receive a long overdue debate.

That said, the terms of the final AUMF, if Congress passes one, is likely to be of little consequence. Obama has been waging war on ISIL for months and readily admits if this AUMF fails, he’ll simply continue under what he claims are sufficient existing authorities.

My hope is that this coming debate will be about bigger questions we should be considering: If we are to expand our military efforts in the region, how will we employ those force and what are our ultimate aims?

We should remember that recent military interventions haven't yielded the expected results and have turned into far different projects than they were originally conceived as. It's easy to start a war by saying "just kill the bad guys" but that relatively simply goal gets complicated very quickly.Before embarking on another set of military interventions, we should consider how we got to this point and where we might wind up going in the future.

As someone who has grown more skeptical about the use of US force in Muslim nations, I worry we are failing to consider the lessons of the post 2001 world. While there was no doubt about the need to go to Afghanistan to hunt down and destroy the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent growth of the mission into an effort to build a better Afghanistan happened without any public debate.

The debate surrounding our invasion of Iraq was robust about the reason to take military action but the potential dangers and costs of even a successful military campaign were never debated publicly. In fact, according to many accounts, they were never seriously debated or even truly considered at the highest policy making levels. Needless to say, many of the planning assumptions were incorrect.

Remember how the Libya mission was originally sold as protecting civilians? Yet it morphed into an effort to oust Gaddafi, even as the administration was denying that. We've been paying for that decision for years now and it's only getting worse.

Skeptical though I am about the ability of American military force to remake the underlying values of the Muslim world, I absolutely agree there are cases where the use of that force is necessary. ISIS is once of those cases.

The key is using force to achieve identifiable and realistic strategic goals. To do that we must consider what those goals are and how best to employ force to realize them.

Let us take a brief look at the current state of play across the Mideast/North Africa region….


In western Iraq/eastern Syria, ISIS has set up a working replica of their ideal 7th century Islamic State. Naturally, this includes all the barbarities once would expect. Their Caliphate continues to expand geographically and the rate at which fundamentalist Muslims fulfill their obligation to move there (the Islamic concept of hijra) continues to increase.

In Syria, the multiple front civil war continues to be waged among the Baathist regime of Bashar Assad (backed by Iran and Iranian funded terrorist groups) against al-Qaeda aligned forces, ISIS and whatever remnants of the “moderate” Free Syrian Army survive. In addition to fighting Assad the rebels fight among each other or band together depending on the moment.

In Yemen, Shiite rebels have displaced the country’s leadership that was cooperating with the US counter-terrorism efforts agonist the Sunni al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group that has tried to launch numerous attacks against the US.

And in Libya, ISIS affiliated groups are gaining ground in the country where not so very long ago our military ousted the despised dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Suffice it to say there’s much strife and upheaval in the region. Of course, that’s just a thumbnail sketch of events that doesn’t touch on the Iranian nuclear program, the ever present threat of another Palestinian-Israeli war, or myriad other regional flashpoints.

It is almost unbelievable but the world is actually more dangerous place after two of the most extensive American military actions of the post-World War II era. It’s into this toxic stew of war that many ardent interventionists want to introduce more American troops with the hope of accomplishing….something. Destroying ISIS? Restoring the reach of the Iraqi government to Sunni areas? Restoring some sort of order in Libya and Yemen? Is there any limiting goal at play?

It is the lack of a clear end-state or at least some sort of definable vision for what we are fighting to accomplish on a strategic level is worrying.

Interventionists are fond of saying wars in the modern age of Islamic terror won’t end in a surrender ceremony as there was at the end of World War II. That’s true as far as it goes. The lack of a formal ending of hostilities doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of defining what victory will look like or developing ways to measure if we are succeeding in the mission.

“Killing the bad guys” is a necessary element but it's not the end of the problem. If it were, the thousands of Islamic fighters we have killed over the last 13 years around the world would have produced a more stable and peaceful region. And the reality is, we aren't going to kill every militant Muslim in the Mideast, let alone the world.

Take the ISIS/Syria theater of war. There are many in Congress who want the United States to send ground troops to directly engage ISIS.

I have a few questions and concerns I think should be considered before supporting this course of action or any presidential candidate espousing it.

How are we going to fight this war? ISIS is deeply entangled within the fabric of the various cities, towns and villages it controls. Would this be a “counter-insurgency” fight where the population is the prize as opposed to a more straight forward war of attrition? Will we be worried about turning the local population against us if we use too much force? Or will we simply steamroll through these places using overwhelming firepower? Tens of thousands of French civilians were killed in the allied march across France after the Normandy landings. That was considered the price of liberation and victory. Is that what we’re contemplating in Iraq’s Anbar Province? I’m not sure it’s possible to wage that kind of war in the modern world for political reasons (assuming Obama or another President would even try). If we don’t fight to directly defeat ISIS or use the full power of American arms then we are contemplating a war where Americans will die to spare Iraqi civilians in the name of “courageous restraint.”

Assume the best case scenario, we fight to win and destroy ISIS or at least push it out of western Iraq, then what? Who will fill the security void? Are we staying there? Are we ready to fight a native insurgency against us? Do we think the Iraqi Security Forces will magically be able to hold the line this time? Will we force the liberated Sunnis to return to a federated Iraq after it’s become clear the central government has little concern for them? Or will we accept that the Shias in Baghdad have no legitimacy in Sunni areas and we will have to cut deals with local tribes and warlords to police their own areas with our direct support?

It’s easy to talk about “wiping out ISIS” but how we go about doing it has profound implications for the nature of the war and what comes after. Isn’t that a lesson worth learning from the 2003 invasion?

Now suppose we do push ISIS out of Iraq and back into Syria. Do we follow them there? I’d say yes. Finish the job. But….there’s always a but…do we cooperate with Assad’s regime to do it? We’d be pushing ISIS into Assad’s lines and could combine to wipe ISIS out between us. The rub is there are those in the US and around the world, certainly in Turkey, who see Assad as an enemy equal to ISIS who has to go and believe we should do it.

In short, is victory the destruction of ISIS or does it require the toppling of Assad as well?

No one doubts Assad is a bad actor who along with his henchmen deserve two bullets between the eyes and a shallow, unmarked grave. But…yes, there’s another but….what replaces him? Many will say “moderate opposition forces”. To me that translates to, “Unicorns and friendly pixies”. None of those things exist. One need only look at Afghanistan and Iraq to see that our ability to pick “moderate” leaders leaves much to be desired. And if you subscribe to the “rubble doesn’t cause trouble” school of thought simply look at Libya to see what removing a dictator and walking away leads to.

But let’s for a moment suppose the nation builders find some group to put at the top of the shell of the former Syrian state. Then what? They have no money, no governing structure, no way to provide basic services, and no security apparatus. Are we occupying Syria for some number of years while it rebuilds? Is there reason to believe Syrians are going to be any happier to have Americans occupying their country than the Iraqis were? Are we to believe that even with the destruction of ISIS there won’t be an insurgency that includes plenty of foreign fighters?

We went into Iraq assuming we’d be welcomed as liberators. What we found was a country far more damaged by Saddam’s dictatorship than we envisioned. Add in ethnic and religious fault lines we didn’t understand and the country fell apart under our noses. There’s no reason to think Syria, which has been ruled just as brutally by a minority sect, won’t contain even nastier surprises for those who naively believe in the universal healing power of western values.

And that’s just the ISIS/Iraq/Syria part of the region. Calls for direct American intervention in Yemen and Libya are emerging.

I do not want to see the United States paralyzed to the point of inaction because of uncertainty or the possibility of bad outcomes. The nature of war is risk and imperfect information. Military force is a blunt tool used to shape the world, the famous definition of it being “politics by other means.” We cannot simply start using that tool without understanding how we plan to wield it and at least a template for the outcome we are trying to create.

Make no mistake, ISIS is a threat that must be dealt with. There is no negotiating with them. It will take force and firepower to stop their advances and begin to roll them back. But let’s not kid ourselves that simply dropping American troops into Iraq alone will guarantee the long-term outcome we want. How we fight this coming war and how we measure its success are just as important as deciding to enter the fighting.

I understand that I have more questions than answers. I accept that there are no concrete answers to these and other necessary questions. My fear is we are ignoring the recent past in not even considering them as we debate another AUMF.

We paid dearly for the lessons of the last 12 plus years. Ignoring them now will cost even more in the long term.

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posted by DrewM. at 09:48 AM

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