Short answer: Probably not.
Even as it appears more and more inevitable that a renewal of Western involvement in the ground war in Iraq is coming, there are no indicators that it would be anything other than a repeat of the later stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That means lots of heavy, high-profile armored vehicles (that tend to break early and often thanks to the weight involved), lots of high-profile heavy infantry (the U.S. and its allies have no proper light infantry), and all major decisions being made or run by officers isolated in air-conditioned TOCs, convinced that the fact they can watch wherever they want by Predator feed means they know and understand what is going on on the ground.
For all that the insurgency got driven underground in the later stages of OIF, it is obvious at this point that the entire COINeffort in Iraq was a failure.A repeat of the same performance can expect the same result.
A number of pundits are asking whether the U.S. and its allies are presently “winning” against Daash by way of airstrikes. The answer to that should be obvious, and was a foregone conclusion before the strikes even began. No war has yet been won entirely from the air, and with Daash’s prior experience, they have adapted quickly (almost as soon as the strikes started), leading to the distinct possibility that even the damage reported to have been done to Daash has been overstated.
At least one of the early videos of strikes in Raqqa appeared to be the bombing of an entirely empty building. Later reports have suggested, at the very least, that Daash was anticipating airstrikes and had been prepared—having evacuated any major targets before the planes were even in the air. The fact that they have further dispersed into units of no more than 50 men further suggests that we’re bombing targets of limited utility at best.
The widely touted video of the bombing of the Daash flag on the hill above Kobani is an example of just how ineffective the air campaign has already been.
While the back of the hill cannot be seen, what is visible is a flag and two Daash fighters. The average cost of a JDAM is around $22,000, and that’s just the guidance package, not the bomb itself, or the cost of operating the aircraft that dropped it. All for a flag and a couple of trigger-pullers.
Daash has demonstrated an understanding of guerrilla and maneuver warfare. They have struck at strategic targets and outmaneuvered Iraqi and Kurdish military formations. And we’re dropping $22,000 bombs on symbolic targets. Does anyone expect the ground campaign to be carried out in any less of a ponderous and wasteful manner?
When ground troops go in, doubtless a lot of Daash fighters will be killed. Some HVTs will be rounded up or taken out. But as long as we continue to insist on our overwhelming military superiority, instead of learning the lessons from the enemy that they have learned from us, we can expect no different results than the last time.
Daash is not the classic, hierarchical guerrilla group that our COIN strategy seems to be predicated on fighting. The last 13 years of war should have taught us that; the Salafist insurgency is a hydra. Cut off one head, two more grow in its place. It is a flexible, adaptable network that utilizes tribal and sectarian rivalries and common interests to advance its goals. It is almost less a conspiracy than it is an agenda, one shared by far more people than we expect. This is the nature of modern, networked insurgency, and our military is far behind the curve when it comes to understanding and dealing with it.
When U.S. Army boots hit Iraqi soil again, Daash will adapt. They will become harder to find, dispersing further. The increasingly large, up-armored units will once more be targets of IEDs, which will continue to become more sophisticated. The addition of the heavy anti-armor weapons being seen with increasing frequency in Syria will make the battlefield even more dangerous for vehicles. Our reaction will likely be the same as it has been over the last decade, getting bigger and heavier rather than dispersing and making ourselves smaller targets.
We will continue to try to play whack-a-mole with HVTs, some of whom will be imaginary (one of our major targets in 2005-2006 turned out to be nothing but a fairy tale, cooked up to give us someone to chase while the real players quietly carried out their operations in the shadows). The insurgency will continue to adapt and spread, largely invisible, until we leave again, and this all starts over.
The only way to get ahead of the Salafists, be they Al Qaeda, Daash, or whatever the next iteration may be, is going to be to adapt to the agile, decentralized world of modern warfare. Until we do, we’ll keep dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bombs on replaceable guys with $100 guns and $20 cell phones, and the chaos will continue to spread.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Foreign Policy)