In a campaign speech, Donald Trump talked about his strategy for dealing with ISIS by saying, “I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers. I would blow up the pipes. I’d bomb the refineries; I would blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.” While bombing ISIS’s financial centers of gravity is all well and good, bombing the hell out of them is not going to end the conflict in Syria or Iraq. Air power alone does not win wars. This isn’t an opinion, but rather accepted orthodoxy within the military establishment.
What air strikes can do is act as a deterrent, forcing political actors to the negotiation table. In the context of politics, this is possible, but as ISIS is a religious organization as much as a political one, this seems highly unlikely. Al-Baghdadi and his death cult are unlikely to kneel in the face of coalition airstrikes the way Serbian President Slobadan Milosevic did in 1999. Interesting to note, the US government’s plan was to use the Kosovo campaign against Milosevic as a model for ousting Assad from Syria over a year ago. It is safe to say that this plan is now out the window.
In fact, it was probably not the air strikes that forced him to negotiate, but rather the reemergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army (probably with some help from the CIA), the lack of Russian support for Serbia, and the threat of a coalition ground invasion. America’s adversaries only consider the threat of air power in the context of it working in tandem with other elements such as ground forces, economic sanctions, diplomacy, and the internal stability of their own state.
These elements work together to coerce America’s enemies into compliance. General Wesley Clark said at the time of the Kosovo campaign that the air strikes were “an effort to coerce, not to seize.” Air strikes degrade enemy capabilities, paving the way for the Infantry seize and hold ground.
In fact, the coalition has already been “bombing the shit” out of ISIS for a total of 8,783 airstrikes as of this writing. However, the Islamic State isn’t much of a state. Much like our bombing of the Taliban in 2001, there are not a whole lot of strategic, or even tactical, centers of gravity to bomb. Blowing up oil infrastructure is a good start, actually even better than bombing high value targets—those individuals can be replaced a lot faster than an oil refinery can. But this will not win the war.
ISIS blends in with the civilian population and takes active measures to prevent being tracked and targeted by signals intelligence (SIGINT). ISIS is also an organization able to quickly transition from conventional warfare to unconventional warfare. They can fight an all-out slugfest on the front lines or they can use terrorist tactics such as suicide bombings inside friendly lines. I saw this personally when I was in Syria; I saw the aftermath of a car bomb detonated near a Kurdish YPG installation well away from the front. If America fights a conventional war against ISIS, the enemy will quickly revert to unconventional tactics.
Haven’t we seen this before? After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it didn’t take long for the Baathists and the Islamists to do the same. The Baathists running ISIS will do the same in 2016 as the coalition and Kurdish elements ramp up the pressure on them.
In order to defeat ISIS, the coalition must use air strikes in conjunction with other tactics and techniques. These would including waging an unconventional war with U.S. Special Forces soldiers advising Kurdish irregular and regular troops, engaging in diplomacy with the Russian and Syrian governments, and cutting off ISIS’s sources of funding and support abroad. This is where the CIA’s paramilitary component could come into play, making sheiks, princes, and other ISIS support in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia simply disappear into the desert one night.
The slick ISIS propaganda effort to lure the United States into war is working, and terrorist attacks in the West are only increasing the pressure on the United States government to “do something” about ISIS. Unfortunately, much of the public has no interest in thinking this problem set through in its entirety, disregarding their own intellect and replacing it with slogans and glittering generalities that make them feel good. This would include carpet bombing, a strategy that doesn’t work, as evidenced by the strategic bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. Anyone who thinks dropping a nuclear weapon on the Middle East is going to solve America’s problems is a fool, reciting lies obvious to everyone except those who want to believe them.
In the coming year, America is going to be in an extremely dangerous position, not because ISIS is strong, but because we are prone to knee-jerk reactions when we are afraid. Instead of repeating the same mistakes we made in Iraq, Libya, and Vietnam, we need to think carefully about maximizing American power in Syria without committing to a fool’s errand.