President Obama’s war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is modeled on the U.S. war against Serbia in 1999 to essentially detach its province of Kosovo – in which the United States acted as the air force for the Kosovo Liberation Army group. This model was also used more recently in Libya to provide air power for Libyan rebel groups that overthrew Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Yet despite these tactical "successes," this model of pairing U.S. air power with local ground forces is likely to fail against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The difference is that in Kosovo and Libya, the United States was supporting guerrilla groups against governments of countries; in Iraq and Syria, the United States is fighting against an opponent that is mainly a guerrilla force. Governments tend to provide better targets for U.S. air power – visible troops and armor, fixed installations, and leadership and command nodes – than guerrillas, who can blend back into the civilian population. ISIS does have some of these targets but ultimately can rely mainly on its ability to disappear into relatively friendly Sunni Arab populations in both countries. In counterinsurgency warfare against guerrillas, President George W. Bush found out that his strategy of "offense is the best defense," which may work at times against nation-states, is abysmally ineffective against guerrillas.
As I note in my book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds Are Seldom Won, history shows that fighting effectively against un-uniformed, irregular guerrillas is extremely difficult; to entertain any chance of winning, paying attention to political factors is far more important than heeding military ones. That is, the most important objective should be to win away the loyalty of the local population – which provides supplies, fighters, and sanctuary to the guerrillas in their midst – from the insurgents. Historically, many great powers have tried winning the "hearts and minds" of indigenous populations by, for example, providing development aid, bribes to leaders and factions, and even candy to children. In the end, however, a foreign occupier or meddler rarely receives the benefit of the doubt among the locals. In the end, only removing the underlying grievance causing the insurgency will dampen or extinguish it. Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria support the brutal ISIS group, because they have been oppressed by Shi’ite-affiliated governments in both countries. Also in general, Islamic peoples are tired of the many U.S. government (and other non-Islamic) political and military interventions in Islamic nations.
So until these grievances are removed or significantly mitigated, ISIS will survive and may even continue to thrive. At any rate, another U.S. (non-Islamic) preventive war in the Middle East is the last thing that is needed and will likely cause radical Islam to become more virulent. For example, when then-President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, his own intelligence agencies and outside analysts all noted the spike in terrorism in response. In the case of ISIS, the group began its heinous beheading of Americans and Brits (America’s closest ally) in retaliation for the commencement of U.S. bombing of the group.
Of course, Osama bin Laden rejoiced at George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and actually said that Bush was very easy to bait to do things that helped al Qaeda get more money and recruit more fighters. Similarly, ISIS seems ecstatic in goading the superpower to ramp up a public crusade against it. Despite U.S. vows of escalation to degrade and destroy the group, ISIS has continued its grisly beheading of hostages. It is ironic that these beheadings seem to have fueled support for Obama’s new war in the United States, given that the “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) group, for which the United States is augmenting support, has also beheaded people. There is ample evidence that some in the FSA, and in the U.S.-allied Kurdish peshmerga militias in Iraq, are as ruthless at ISIS. Besides, FSA fighters in Syria are often mixed in with al Qaeda fighters on the battlefield, which was why Obama originally was reluctant to give them too much assistance. A few beheadings by ISIS don’t change this basic problem. And they don’t change the fact that the United States spent eight years training the Iraqi army, only to see U.S. weapons fall to ISIS when that army turned and ran.
Not having reliable allies on the ground in either Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS severely limits the applicability of the Kosovo and Libya models to the current situation. A friendly ground force needs to locate targets for U.S. air power, "fix" enemy forces on the ground for air strikes to have the maximum effect, and occupy ground abandoned by the enemy. The effectiveness of U.S. air power is lessened substantially without such dependable allies below, and the chance of a successful American war against ISIS is therefore greatly diminished.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that ISIS is only a regional threat, not a threat to U.S. territory. ISIS does not have the networks of operatives in the West or the bomb-making capability that al Qaeda does. U.S. intelligence is not even sure that ISIS wants to attack the United States; its main goal has been to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. The twelve Americans that are fighting for ISIS can best be handled by the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, instead of the U.S. government merely creating more terrorists hostile to the United States by a very public bombing campaign against ISIS. Public wars on terrorism help politicians – such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama – show that they are doing something about a problem, but more effective actions against terrorists are best done quietly. More important, U.S. authorities should demand that reluctant regional allies, who should be more threatened by ISIS’s ascendancy than is the United States, accept the responsibility for the long-term degradation of ISIS – either through the use of their own forces on the ground or by the training of friendly local forces in Iraq and Syria.
Lastly, the most unobtrusive but pernicious effect of Obama’s war may be on the U.S. Constitution. Ironically, he has asked Congress for $500 million to give weapons to the Free Syrian Army but not to approve the more drastic action of attacking ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Obama claims that Congress’s authorization of the use of military force after the 9/11 attacks and its later authorization to invade Iraq already allow him to attack Iraq and Syria. Congress approved attacking Iraq way back in 2003, and the framers of the Constitution didn’t intend to allow the chief executive to attack a country in perpetuity. Also, the authorization to use military force against the 9/11 attackers was specifically restricted to those perpetrators, not al Qaeda regional affiliates or splinter groups – that is, ISIS. So Obama’s new war in Iraq and Syria has not been congressionally sanctioned and is therefore illegal and unconstitutional. Instead of ducking a vote during an election year, members of Congress should demand a vote and then say "no" to what likely will be another unneeded, failed, and counterproductive war in the Islamic world.