During the first Persian Gulf War, the United States stormed into Iraq and in less than two months defeated one the world’s largest armies. Operation Desert Sabre (the ground campaign) took less than five days. During which, the American Army navigated the featureless Iraqi desert and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s elite Tawakalna Division. In the 2nd Iraq War American tanks reached Baghdad in only 21 days. Roughly halving the duration of the previous war, and driving Saddam from power in the process. Over the course of the next decade the American military fought a grinding counter-insurgency campaign. With the Surge and the Sunni Awakening, the country was stabilized.
Things took a turn for the worst when the Coalition left Iraq. The Islamic State invasion of Northern Iraq in 2014 was a stunning upset. In Mosul 1,500 ISIS fighters took the city; defeating an Iraqi force of 31,500 outfitted with American military equipment. Cameras captured footage of Iraqi soldiers fleeing their positions, leaving millions of dollars in American supplied equipment behind.
The Islamic State pushed south, eventually capturing most of the Sunni dominated northern half of Iraq. Fortunately, the Shia dominated south was able to hold the line at Baghdad and the Kurds in the north held out.Still,a year and a half later ISIS still controls Mosul and much of Anbar province.
Vietnam was a similar story. Throughout the war the United States lost only two major battles. Everywhere the American military went it mowed down scores of NVA and Vietcong fighters. For every American killed roughly twenty enemy combatants were taken out. The problem was, that once the Americans left in 1973 the North Vietnamese began to overtake the south. Without the support of U.S ground forces the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam crumbled. 25 months later in 1975, Saigon fell to the NVA.
The U.S can shatter any foe on the battlefield, that much is a fact.However, In both Iraq and Vietnam the American military’s success on the battlefield failed to translate into the desired political outcome.In Iraq the democracy that emerged was majoritarian and alienated the Sunni minority.It failed to hold the country together and is now fighting a war for it’s existence.
In Vietnam, the South Vietnamese were not capable of holding off the North without direct American support on the ground. The U.S backed government was an unpopular and repressive one. It did not have the good will of the people and fell because of it.
America fights wars with an overwhelming emphasis on the military; or (more accurately) the “force” aspect of war,leaving the long term politics on the back burner.In Iraq the politics behind the Sunni awakening proved short lived and more tactical than strategic.
While American force has proven to be overwhelming the United States has so far failed to use that force effectively. America has forgotten war is politics by other means. It has forgotten that the use of force is a means to a political end.War is not a means of control but a way to rearrange the political landscape to its favor.
In the fight against ISIS we must not make this same mistake.The military option has proven that it is simply not enough. Creating a strong Iraqi government that is capable of defending its borders is certainly a primary objective. The military defeat of the Islamic State is also obviously important. However, if the state the results from the war against is not one that inclusive of the Sunni minority or capable of bringing . Iraq will be doomed to an endless fight against the Sunnis. terrorism will persist and the chance that an ISIS like organization could reemerge and retake parts of Iraq is all too real.In fact ISIS is living proof of this possibility.
In Syria too, we must not forget that the strategic political issues are the most important aspect of the war against global Jihad. Violence alone has proven a poor substitute for real changes that could rob Jihadist groups of a following and empower the the states they fight and terrorize. Bashar Al-Assad’s barbaric war against the people of Syria is the cause of the conflict there and the mechanism which has allowed ISIS to grow. The military option then, addresses a symptom of the problem not the cause. Islamo-Fascism is a result of the failure of Arab nationalism and democracy. More specifically; the failure of that nationalism to create inclusive states and provide a suitable platform for the aspirations of all of their people.
This theme where Jihadist groups grow out of alienation and war is nearly universal among the Jihadi movement. Boko Haram formed in Nigeria’s impoverished and marginalized north. The Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate is fed by opposition to Sisi’s regime in Cairo. In Europe, foreign fighters grow out of impoverished and poorly integrated immigrant neighborhoods in places like Belgium and France.
In regard to the military or “force” option. It is then, not a matter of the Islamic State’s destruction. If the White House had the will, we could blast them into inferno in a matter of weeks. We could knock out their infrastructure, establish a no-fly zone, crater every road into impassable rumble and turn their oil wells into fire pits. The question is: what would take their place? Defeating ISIS means finding political solutions that will be sustainable; not just bombing them back to the stone age on the battlefield. Without a political solution we will never destroy ISIS. It will come back in some form or another.
Finally, it is important to remember what Clausewitz said regarding the extremes of state violence. One thing that limits war from its extremes is the knowledge that no defeat is permanent. There is always another round to go. The Vietcong knew this in Vietnam, Al-Qaeda knew this in Iraq and ISIS knows this now. They will not allow themselves to be wiped out in a battle to the last man. Unless the source of their political support is removed, they will keep coming back.