It begins again: using airstrikes to degrade if not defeat an indigenous insurgency. The media is all atwitter at yesterday’s massed use of sea-launched cruise missiles, manned aircraft and drones to hit a relatively small set of ISIS targets in Syria.
Even as we bask in the glow of our military’s current operational success, it would be well to remember that we have been here before. This is the same strategy the Bush Administration chose for Afghanistan in 2001. It used U.S. airpower to degrade the Taliban and as close air support for indigenous ground forces. It rejected the advise of senior military leaders to deploy boots on the ground at Tora Bora to ensure the capture of Osama bin Laden, relying instead on indigenous forces plus massive air strikes. How well did that work out?
I am unaware of a single respected defense analyst or military expert who believes that the Obama Administration’s strategy will be successful in defeating ISIS. At best air strikes will buy some time to organize and train local forces — Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian — to conduct a ground counteroffensive. No one knows how long this effort will take or how effective these forces will be. There are the not-very-positive experiences with U.S.-trained indigenous forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali.
To date there have been three options proposed for dealing with ISIS. The one chosen by the White House is to rely on the arrival on the battlefield of a nebulous array of indigenous ground forces preceded and supported by air strikes. A second is to put U.S. boots on the ground now to take the fight to ISIS. The third is to rely solely on air strikes, thereby avoiding the difficulties associated with trying to recruit, train, equip and ensure the loyalty of local armies and militias.
Now a fourth option has been proposed. On his cable program last night, Bill O’Reilly put out the idea that the U.S. organize, train, equip and deploy an elite mercenary army of 25,000 well-prepared and well-paid fighters to be the boots on the ground for this and other counterinsurgency operations.
Those who criticize this proposal as illegal and immoral apparently are unaware of — or choose to ignore — the fact that there have been thousands of armed contractors hired to protect both military and civilian personnel and sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just Americans but former soldiers from many countries, including Gurkhas.
This proposal addresses directly the two major weaknesses of past and current counterinsurgency strategies: the reluctance to deploy U.S. ground troops and the risks associated with outsourcing the fight to poorly organized, trained, equipped and motivated indigenous forces.
There are many reasons why O’Reilly’s proposal would be extremely difficult to implement. But O’Reilly is trying to address the reality that the current strategy is almost certain to fail and could even make the situation in the Middle East worse. His “third way” is an example of out-of-the-box thinking that is sorely lacking in Washington’s policy circles.
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