American and Iraqi officials are leaking a plan to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On the surface, the roadmap to victory seems plausible, but as I note in my book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds Are Seldom Won, such well-laid plans often go off the rails in execution on real battlefields.
Although ISIS is not strictly an insurgent (guerrilla) force, because the group has some heavy weapons and infrastructure, it has made gains despite U.S. airstrikes on these obvious targets. And since the objective of U.S. and Iraqi strategy is to eventually drive ISIS fighters to ground in cities like Mosul and then to cut off their supplies and reinforcements from Syria using U.S. airstrikes, some ground force will be needed to go into these built up areas, conducting house-to-house counterinsurgency operations to root out the group. Right now that falls to the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi Army and the Kurdish pesh merga militias. Yet these are the same forces that, despite years of training and equipping by the United States, have fared poorly against ISIS.
To improve these forces, the United States has already sent about 1,400 military advisers, but so far they have advised at only relatively high levels of the Iraqi Army. To be effective, more advisers will be needed to go into the field with Iraqi and Kurdish forces and also call in U.S. airstrikes. The United States already will ramp up the number of advisers to 3,100. When the United States originally invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, proponents decried comparisons to the Vietnam War, but of course, both wars have turned out to be much longer quagmires than even U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And the recent American adventure back into Iraq and into Syria also is beginning to resemble escalation in Vietnam. U.S. air power failed to bring the enemy to heel, so more and more American combat "advisers" are being added to fight along side friendly local forces. In these situations, once the nation starts down the escalation slope, American prestige is on the line and when lesser measures don’t work, overwhelming political pressure is brought to bear on the president by the political and foreign policy elite to escalate the conflict.
In Vietnam, there was never much public pressure to escalate the war, because most Americans in the early 1960s didn’t even know where Vietnam was on a map. Yet it happened anyway. In this case, the American people were horrified at ISIS’s beheadings of Americans in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the group and reflexively wanted something done about it; but after the long quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, public opinion doesn’t want significant U.S. ground combat troops added. Thus, one could foresee such American forces gaining in number, after local forces don’t perform well, but never shedding the label "advisers."
If the United States ends up fighting the war on the ground, instead of local forces, there is surprisingly a lower likelihood of success. Well-trained local forces know the language and culture and therefore have the best intelligence on who and who is not a guerrilla fighter. Despite the fact that the United States has by far the best military in the world for fighting the militaries of other nation-states, it has proved mostly incompetent in fighting guerrillas for one reason or another—for example, the U.S. armed forces took too long to defeat the Viet Cong in Vietnam and lost the war politically. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military lost the war against the Afghan Taliban long ago, but figuring a way to get out has been hard. In the U.S. occupation of Iraq, General David Petraeus had the most recent success in using a U.S. troop "surge" to mask paying off the Sunni tribes to switch sides and fight al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor group to ISIS, instead of battling U.S. forces.
The last distasteful outcome is what "success" may look like in counterinsurgency warfare. Yet contrary to what war hawks like John McCain and Lindsay Graham argue, this "victory" in Iraq was bound to be temporary. Iraq, ever since its inception, has been an artificial country of feuding Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish groups, held together by governments with authoritarian characteristics. Syria has many of the same warring groups. What is needed to stop any insurgency is a political solution that removes underlying grievances. Because the effort against guerrillas is 95 percent political and administrative and only 5 percent military, the U.S. armed forces have not been very competent in this type of warfare. Most militaries of great powers aren’t.
James Dubik, a three-star general who trained the Iraqi military during the U.S. surge in 2007 and 2008, is quoted in the New York Times as saying that the most critical part of the campaign against ISIS will be winning the allegiance of Iraqis after ISIS is routed. He argues that there will need to be legitimate, evenhanded, nonsectarian government in Iraq. Dubik gets credit for realizing that "winning hearts and minds" is more important in these types of wars than military action, but he is dreaming if he thinks Iraq will have an impartial nonsectarian government. That has not been the history of Iraq. Since its inception, the central government of Iraq has been used by one group to oppress the others; that is why they fight fiercely to either control it or resist it.
For example, currently the central parliament, dominated by Shi’ites, has so far refused to set up national guard units that would be vital to battling ISIS, because in Sunni areas it would be arming Sunnis under the control of a Sunni governor. Furthermore, ISIS has taken over Sunni areas largely because Sunnis have less fear of that Sunni group that they do of the Shi’ite government in Baghdad. Thus, turning the Sunni tribes against ISIS, as Petraeus did against the precursor group al Qaeda in Iraq, will now be more difficult because the promises that were made to let Sunnis back into the Iraqi Army and bureaucracy were broken last time by the Shi’ite government.
The U.S. government’s only hope to counter ISIS without escalation into a years-long bog is to again turn the Sunni tribes to fight against ISIS, but this time that objective will need to be attained by a different method. The United States should accept the reality that Iraq has now been effectively partitioned and recognize the autonomous governance of Sunni areas, much as such Kurdish autonomy has been recognized in northeastern Iraq. Then the Sunnis will be much less threatened by the Shi’ite central government, because it will be very weak or even nonexistent. Then the Sunni tribes would have no incentive to support ISIS and thus would be more likely to turn against it – as they did before. The recognition of Iraq’s partition is the only hope for the United States to avoid escalation into another quagmire on the ground in Iraq.