Strategy is difficulty to practice and even more difficult to master. Its components – knowledge leavened by wisdom and imagination – cohabit with military science only in the most tense and difficult of relationships. That said, there are three nearly invariable rules that should govern the thinking and acting of a strategic actor – nation state or non-state: the first is that the record of the US since its founding ought to be a caution against any involvement in its interventions: In a document compiled by the Congressional Research Service covering the 216 years period 1798 – 2014, and which excludes the current campaigns in Iraq and Syria and all covert and / or “black” operations, the following table is revealing:
Post Cold War (August 1990 – 14 August 2014): 146 deployments (averaging 6.1 per year.) Bush 1: 9, Clinton: 65, Bush 2: 39, and Obama: 33.
Cold War (24 June 1948 – August 1990): 47 deployments (averaging 1.5 per year)
Interwar and World War II (1918 – 1948): 34 deployments (averaging 1.1 per year)
Imperial Era and World War I (1866 – 1917): 69 deployments (averaging 1.4 per year)
Nation’s Founding through Civil War (1798 to 1865): 65 deployments (averaging 1.0 per year)
In just the 24 years since the end of the Cold War, the US has deployed military force 5 times more often than in the previous 193 years.
The second proscribes the temptation to persuade the educated population of an electoral democracy of the merits of a particular strategy by resorting to slogans and bumper-sticker phrases. While conceding that they have their use (by resolute fans of sports teams or true believers in political parties with no regard for the welfare of their motor vehicle, they inevitably distort. Thus, it contributes nothing to the public understanding of IS / ISIS / Daesh to keep referring to it, as a “death cult” because, while its strategies of terror are frequently obscene, deadly and destructive, it remains more than this characterization.
Similarly, proclaiming that the objective is to “degrade, defeat and to destroy” the organisation passes a junior alliteration test but leaves unsaid how this will be done by bombing and, indeed, what victory will look like given that the ideology of IS is centuries old and bombs are essentially irrelevant against abstract nouns.
The third is that a nation-state, or non-state, actor should not persist in modes of thought and courses of action that are evident failures. The Australian Government’s recent decision to extend the RAAF’s bombing missions to Syria, and indeed, the precursor decision to join with the US operations against targets in Iraq, suggest that it is both ignorant of, or unconcerned with the former while being clear evidence that the latter is a present and chronic malaise in national security thinking and practice.
Consider this vignette by George Packer in The New Yorker of the recent time frame:
It has been almost fourteen years since the September 11th attacks—longer than the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, longer than America’s war in Vietnam. The fallout has been an improbable and wrong-footed business from the start, unfolding in a series of improvisations and flukes, with actions or reactions that often seemed not just incommensurate with their consequences but utterly disconnected: nineteen hijackers commandeer four commercial airplanes; the United States drives the Taliban from Afghanistan; Osama bin Laden escapes to Pakistan; the Bush Administration invents a secret legal apparatus; the Taliban return; the U.S. invades Iraq, occupies it for eight years, then leaves; bin Laden is hunted down and killed while under the protection of a putative American ally; Arab states disintegrate; an obscure jihadist from Baghdad declares the restoration of the caliphate; the U.S. returns to Iraq. As narrative, the war on terror has been like the nouveau roman, with no coherent plot, only jarring disjunctions of cause and effect, time and place.
A little over one year after operations against Islamic State were begun, there is little evidence of bombing’s efficacy. Whether IS is advancing or retreating is essentially unknown, not least for the fact that hard, reliable intelligence on its strength is elusive. Thus, CENTCOM claims that it has killed 10,000 fighters is a non sequitur if, as seems to be the case, their number appears to have remained constant through the period.
Perhaps more significant is the current investigation being undertaken by the US Department of Defense’s Inspector General in response to allegations from within the Defense Intelligence Agency that CENTCOM officers were “improperly reworking” conclusions of assessments that were prepared for policy-makers, including President Obama.
As unprofessional and dangerous as this is, it accords with the carnival of confusions that attend US policy and strategy in the Middle East. The very nature of something as fundamental as the threat to US national security – and thus to US alliances – is unclear. In 2011, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, it was the US national debt. Thereafter, and notwithstanding that little has been done to significantly improve the debt issue, the State Department’s web site is explicit: it is terrorist networks that pose the greatest security threat. At the same time, senior CIA analysts agree but numerous members of Congress and high-ranking officials from the National Security Agency have been content merely with simply stating that the threat was terrorism (national, international, home-grown jihadis, “lone wolf”) and its level is “unprecedented.”
It is a view evidently and emphatically not shared by General Phillip Breedlove, Commander of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe: in August 2015 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee he not only nominated Russia as the principal threat to the US and its allies but advocated a direct confrontation with that country. He conceded, however, that terrorism and instability across the Middle East and North Africa were part of the larger threat spectrum.
Understandably, no mention is made at these levels of official Washington of the origins of IS in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent policies and strategies followed by the United States and its allies until their departure. The imposed institutionalization of sectarianism which facilitated anti-Sunni discrimination, and “de-Baathification,” coupled with being occupied by foreign powers and a wrecked economy were all catalysts for the emergence of an agile, militarily competent, and politically astute enemy that knows how to instill fear, extract obedience and even respect from the populations over which it rules.
Equally, strategies and policies which refuse to countenance an informal alliance with President Assad’s forces because Syria is to be another example of ‘regime change’ fail to acknowledge that he and they are determined to defeat IS and that, historically, the West has benefited enormously by accommodations of this nature. Has the West’s relationship with Stalin’s Soviet Union in World War II now so totally forgotten that it is not even mentioned in analyses and opinion pieces in Australia (and elsewhere)?
Perhaps to do so would be to acknowledge the carnival of confusions that the Iraq – Syria campaign has given rise to and which is best exemplified by the American Middle East scholar, Stephen Zunes, in another vignette:
Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East?
If so, please let me explain it for you in clear terms:
We support the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS.
We don’t like ISIS, but ISIS is supported by Saudi Arabia who we do like.
We don’t like Assad in Syria.
We support the fight against him, but ISIS is also fighting against him.
We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government in its fight against ISIS.
So some of our friends support our enemies, some enemies are now our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, who we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.
If the people we want to defeat are defeated, they could be replaced by people we like even less.
And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who were not actually there until we went in to drive them out.
An immediate accounting of this disconnect between modest, but sound strategic theory and action must include the national tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people, especially over the last 5 years which marks its civil war. The estimated death toll from four years of civil war is between 220,000 and 310,000, up to half of its population of 23 million has been displaced and 5 million have created an exodus of refugees. Just as deciding precisely upon the causes, deciding who is with, or without blame for it all is an exercise in the forensics of power politics in the Middle East. Suffice to say that understanding might best be served by appropriating the wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel: few might strictly be guilty, but all are responsible.
What, then is the objective of Australia’s contribution in this context given that it is unlikely that US air power will be enhanced by the addition of six F/A-18 Hornets, a Wedgetail airborne control aircraft and a KC-30A tanker, and given also that, in the year to August this year, the US had carried out 5,900 strikes against IS targets in an extended operation described by one general as “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.”
If we take into account that the 22,478 mainly US weapons directed against targets in Iraq and Syria in the past year represents a factor five times greater than during the period 2010 to 2015 in Afghanistan, then the reported lack of success against IS argues against even a claim of Australia’s marginal utility. And this is without entering into a debate on the financial cost of the US air campaign, now reported as $USD9.9 million per day.
Indeed, to ask this question is to beggar the whole notion of strategy even as an art. Official statements are devoid of any mention of a strategy for the Iraq-Syria theatre of operations. What exists is the alliterative “degrade, defeat, and destroy” – in other words a vague sense that bombing at least satisfies a need to be doing something, and on the offensive. It also allows Australia to engage once more in its peculiar form of strategic mimetism whereby it assumes US imperatives and categories to reinforce the political validity and utility of it alliance with the US.
This is a curious and dangerous neurosis: from the beginning, it was officially conceded that bombing alone would not defeat IS and the evidence to date is that the $USD500 million plan to train 5,400 anti-IS fighters in 2015 is officially a failure with only “four or five” Syrian trainees actively engaged in this according to Central Command’s general Lloyd J. Austin. The danger would only be exacerbated if the current Republican presidential debates are any indication, and / or if they drag US debate further to the right because many of them openly advocate the insertion of US ground troops as a solution to Syrian default.
The problem here is that this neurosis is also a reflex, and its accompanying spasm of non-strategic thinking, collides with not only genuine strategic practice, but also with what I understand to be the First Law of Political Action. That Law holds that political action is only ever undertaken if it can satisfy one of two criteria: to improve the situation, or stop it from getting worse. How either can be argued on the basis of recent history, or the present circumstances, would be a wonder to behold.
Dr Michael McKinley, Visiting Fellow, College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU.