The Pretend War: Why Bombing Isil Won't Solve The
The deployment of our military might in Syria will exacerbate
regional disorder – and it will solve nothing
By Andrew J. Bacevich
November 28, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Spectator"
- Not so long ago, David Cameron declared that he was not some
‘naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane
at 40,000 feet’. Just a few weeks after making that speech, Cameron
authorised UK forces to join in the bombing of Libya — where the
outcome reaffirmed this essential lesson.
Soon Cameron will ask parliament to share his
‘firm conviction’ that bombing Raqqa, the Syrian headquarters of the
Islamic State, has become ‘imperative’. At first glance, the case
for doing so appears compelling. The atrocities in Paris certainly
warrant a response. With François Hollande having declared his
intention to ‘lead a war which will be pitiless’, other western
nations can hardly sit on their hands; as with 9/11 and 7/7, the
moment calls for solidarity. And since the RAF is already targeting
Isis in Iraq, why not extend the operation to the other side of the
elided border? What could be easier?
But it’s harder to establish what expanding the
existing bombing campaign further will actually accomplish. Is
Britain engaged in what deserves to be called a war, a term that
implies politically purposeful military action? Or is the Cameron
government — and the Hollande government as well — merely venting
its anger, and thereby concealing the absence of clear-eyed
Britain and France each once claimed a place among
the world’s great military powers. Whether either nation today
retains the will (or the capacity) to undertake a ‘pitiless’ war —
presumably suggesting a decisive outcome at the far end — is
doubtful. The greater risk is that, by confusing war with
punishment, they exacerbate the regional disorder to which previous
western military interventions have contributed.
Even without Britain doing its bit, plenty of
others are willing to drop bombs on Isis on either side of the
Iraq-Syria frontier. With token assistance from Bahrain, Jordan,
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, US forces have thus far flown some 57,000
sorties while completing 8,300 air strikes. United States Central
Command keeps a running scorecard: 129 Isis tanks destroyed, 670
staging areas and 5,000 fighting positions plastered, and (in a
newish development) 260 oil infrastructure facilities struck, with
the numbers updated from one day to the next. The campaign that the
Americans call Operation Inherent Resolve has been under way now for
17 months. It seems unlikely to end anytime soon.
In Westminster or the Elysée, the Pentagon’s
carefully tabulated statistics are unlikely to garner much official
attention, and for good reason. All these numbers make a rather
depressing point: with plenty of sorties flown, munitions expended
and targets hit, the results achieved, even when supplemented with
commando raids, training missions and the generous distribution of
arms to local forces, amount in sum to little more than military
piddling. In the United States, the evident ineffectiveness of the
air campaign has triggered calls for outright invasion. Pundits of a
bellicose stripe, most of whom got the Iraq war of 2003 wrong,
insist that a mere 10,000 or 20,000 ground troops — 50,000 tops! —
will make short work of the Islamic State as a fighting force.
Victory guaranteed. No sweat.
And who knows? Notwithstanding their record of
dubious military prognostications, the proponents of
invade-and-occupy just might be right — in the short term. The West
can evict Isis from Raqqa if it really wants to. But as we have seen
in other recent conflicts, the real problems are likely to present
themselves the day after victory. What then? Once in, how will we
get out? Competition rather than collaboration describes relations
between many of the countries opposing Isis. As Barack Obama pointed
out this week, there are now two coalitions converging over Syria: a
US-led one, and a Russia-led one that includes Iran. Looking for
complications? With Turkey this week having shot down a Russian
fighter jet — the first time a Nato member has downed a Kremlin
military aircraft for half a century — the subsequent war of words
between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin
gives the world a glimpse into how all this could spin out of
The threat posed by terrorism is merely
symptomatic of larger underlying problems. Crush Isis, whether by
bombing or employing boots on the ground, and those problems will
still persist. A new Isis, under a different name but probably
flying the same banner, will appear in its place, much as Isis
itself emerged from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Does the West possess the wherewithal to sustain
another long war? Only if the allies wage that war exclusively from
the air. The British army is now the smallest it has been since the
19th century, Cameron’s government having reduced it by 20 per cent
since coming to power. The French army today numbers just over
100,000. London and Paris inevitably look to the United States as
the pre-eminent member of the western alliance to take up the slack
(the US still spends almost twice as much on defence as all other
Nato members put together). But apart from Obama’s evident
reluctance to close out his presidency by embarking upon a new war,
advocates of a major ground offensive against Isis should note that
the United States army is also shrinking. It’s also considerably
worn out by the trials of the past dozen or more years. Those who
cheer from the bleachers may be eager for action. Those likely to be
sent to fight, not to mention citizens who actually care about the
wellbeing of their soldiers, may feel less keen.
The fact is that Britain, France, the United
States and the other allies face a perplexing strategic conundrum.
Collectively, they find themselves locked in a protracted conflict
with Islamic radicalism — of which Isis is but one manifestation.
Prospects for negotiating an end to that conflict anytime soon
appear to be nil. Alas, so too do prospects of winning it.
In this conflict, the West as a whole appears to
enjoy the advantage of clear-cut military superiority. By almost any
measure, we are stronger than our adversaries. Our arsenals are
bigger, our weapons more sophisticated, our generals better educated
in the art of war, our fighters better trained at waging it.
Yet time and again the actual deployment of our
ostensibly superior military might has produced results other than
those intended or anticipated. Even where armed intervention has
achieved a semblance of tactical success — the ousting of some
unsavoury dictator, for example — it has yielded neither
reconciliation nor willing submission nor even sullen compliance.
Instead, intervention typically serves to aggravate, inciting
further resistance. Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism,
we end up feeding them.
Although the comparison may strike some as
historically imprecise, the present moment bears at least passing
resemblance to the last occasion when British and French leaders got
all worked up about taking on obstreperous Arabs. Back in 1956, the
specific circumstances differed, of course. Then, the problem
attracting the ire of British and French policymakers was the Arab
nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who in seizing the Suez canal had
committed a seemingly unpardonable offence. And the issue was
preserving imperial privilege, not curbing terrorism. But then, as
today, in both London and Paris, an emotional thirst for revenge
overrode sober calculation.
The vicious Isis attacks in Paris represent
another unpardonable offence. Through war, Cameron and Hollande seek
to avenge the innocents who were killed and wounded. But as the
humiliating outcome of the Suez war reminds us, there are some
problems to which war is an unsuitable response.
Across much of the greater Middle East today, we
confront one such problem. For western governments to reflexively
visit further violence on that region represents not a policy but an
abdication of policy. It’s past time to think differently.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a retired US
colonel, and author of America’s
War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,
due out in April.