Even before President Obama speaks to the nation tonight, the essential elements of his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) have already been made public. He will build an international coalition, strive to rebuild the Iraqi military (which will require the deployment of U.S. and coalition trainers and advisors), empower other opposition forces such as the Kurds in Iraq and moderate Syrian rebel groups, and conduct an expanded air campaign against ISIL targets in Iraq and even Syria.
He will also reiterate his commitment that no U.S. ground combat forces will be deployed in this campaign. He has been clear about this point from the beginning. The American people agree with him. So do many analysts and regional experts. One of the best of these, Dr. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that such a move would be counterproductive, involving this country in a regional civil war and allowing the new Iraqi government to avoid having to clean up its act and deploy a competent, corruption-free, national army. Cordesman and most other experts agree that an extensive air campaign will be needed to have any chance of driving ISIL from Iraq. An even bigger operation will be necessary if the administration hopes to significantly reduce the terrorists’ capabilities in Syria.
The truth that virtually no one is willing to voice is that without the deployment of a substantial U.S. ground combat force to Iraq and probably Syria, ISIL cannot be defeated. The President and his senior advisors know this. This is why they were speaking just a few days and weeks ago about degrading and containing ISIL. That is the most that can be done with airpower alone; by itself, even U.S. airpower cannot destroy ISIL.
The central lesson of the conflicts of the 21st Century is that they can only be won by the use of combined arms. The role of ground forces is central to any combined arms campaign. The presence of ground forces requires adversaries to concentrate and even expose themselves in order to provide sufficient mass. But this opens the enemy up to devastating air attacks. Under the threat of air attack, hostile forces either must disperse or go underground, leaving them vulnerable to ground maneuver and fires. Israel learned that lesson in its 2006 war with Hezbollah and reconfirmed that lesson in the recent Gaza conflict. This is combined arms-101 and is as true today as it was in World War Two.
Given the weaknesses of local land forces, U.S. airpower employed in support of Iraqi, Kurdish and even Syrian ground units will not be decisive. The Kurds will not operate beyond their part of Iraq. It will take time, probably years, before the Iraqi military is ready for serious offensive operations. Most of the current fighting against ISIL is being conducted by Iranian-trained and supported Shiite militias. Who even knows about the future capabilities of the moderate Syrian rebels?
There are lots of more capable armies in the region, notably those of Iran, Turkey and Jordan. We certainly do not want Iranian forces marching through Iraq. None of the other regional powers would even think of deploying their ground forces to this fight without a strong U.S. ground cohort, if then. The same is true for other NATO countries that will be part of the coalition to defeat ISIL.
Why must U.S. land forces be a central part of any strategy to defeat ISIL? The first reason is that they will ensure that the job gets done. After 14 years in combat, U.S. land forces are experienced and equipped like no other for the kind of campaign that will be required. All the coalition partners know this. The second reason is that it is difficult to ask others to do what you are unwilling to do. Yes, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the rebels in Libya were able to achieve success with the help of U.S. airpower alone but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. ISIL is larger and better equipped than was either the Taliban or the Libyan army. It also has more combat experience and now, thanks to our deliberate decision making process, has been forewarned to prepare for airstrikes. The third reason is that we need to anticipate now what will happen on the ground after any military operation and have the capacity to influence those events.
Land power has not lost its centrality to U.S. national security in the 21st Century. If anything, events of the last six months have demonstrated that the significant conflicts of our times are all about controlling people, land and resources. You can influence governments and terrorist groups from the air and sea. You cannot liberate them from oppression, protect them from invasion or influence the peace without being on the ground. If this is going to be our third try at the brass ring in Iraq, let it be the last. For that to be true, we will need to deploy ground forces.
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