Military Leaders Dubious of Bigger War against ISIL
November 18, 2015
Bryan Bender / Politico
Military officials worry that leaders in Washington haven't absorbed the lessons of America's last big wars. Pentagon officials are skeptical about calls for escalating the war against the Islamic State, saying they have watched too many of their troops' hard-won victories slip away amid civilian inattention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
(November 17, 2015) -- US military leaders are skeptical about calls for escalating the war against the Islamic State, saying they have watched too many of their troops' hard-won victories slip away amid civilian inattention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even as US and allied aircraft step up their bombing campaign against the terrorist group after Friday's attacks in Paris, senior military officials privately express worries that political leaders in Washington and foreign capitals still haven't absorbed the lessons of America's last two big wars.
In both cases, the military defeated the Taliban, Saddam Hussein's regime and the Iraqi insurgents, but civilian leadership failed to do the political, economic and diplomatic heavy-lifting needed to sustain those wins.
The same thing could happen again in the fight against ISIL, the military officials say, unless far more is done to train and arm local allies, beef up the State Department's capacity to assist foreign allies to improve governing structures, counter the terrorist group's message in mosques and in social media and employ much more international leverage to end the Syrian civil war.
Otherwise, the growing pressure to strike back hard against ISIL will mean that guns and bombs once again get far more attention and resources than the other levers of power that would ultimately prove more consequential.
The military officials say these concerns are behind President Barack Obama's refusal to launch a more expansive military operation that includes American ground troops against the terrorists.
"We can kill a lot of them, maybe all of them," said one senior military official, who like most of the others who spoke to POLITICO was not authorized to speak publicly about the year-old US-led campaign. "We can probably convince some to quit and embrace a more moderate view. But if that is all we do, we will be back here again."
Calls for stronger action against the terror group are coming from leading Republicans and some Democrats in Congress, as well as on the campaign trail. "We should declare war, and harness all of the power that the United States can bring to bear, both diplomatic and military, of course, to be able to take out ISIS," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said on NBC this weekend, calling for steps such as declaring a no-fly zone over Syria and embedding troops with the Iraqi military. Other GOP presidential hopefuls and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton have also advocated a no-fly zone.
But when asked what more the US can do to confront ISIL, several military officials instead spoke of limits -- and noted that the Obama administration's strategy contains nine "lines of effort," only two of which are led by the military.
Other elements of the strategy call for disrupting the terror group's finances; enhancing intelligence gathering; getting other nations to choke the flow of foreign fighters from some 80 countries who look to take up arms with the Islamic State; persuading Muslim clerics around the world expose ISIL's "true nature;" helping people displaced by the Syrian civil war; and lining up the international community to help build better governments in the region, especially in Iraq.
"There is a renewed sense among the more experienced players that after every decisive action comes the question, 'And then what?'" said Joseph J. Collins, director of the Center for Complex Operations at the Pentagon's National Defense University.
While some people advocate sending in US troops, "there is very few of them asking that question. But there are certainly a lot of people in the Pentagon and the State Department who are asking that question."
One top Pentagon leader who has helped shape the current thinking is recently retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier this fall.
Unless the Iraqi government bridges the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims and addresses the grievances of the Kurds, for example, "then nothing we do will last," he said in an interview published in the Pentagon's Joint Force Quarterly.
"It will be painting over rust," added Dempsey, who commanded US forces during the Iraq War. "The military lines of effort leap out in front -- and I do mean leap. That is who we are, right? If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing. The military lines of effort will always be achieved. And that can be detrimental to the other lines of effort."
Others with deep experience in the US anti-terror effort expressed similar qualms.
"Even if we somehow did obliterate ISIL -- which would be extremely difficult -- if we don't end the civil wars we will have the son of ISIL tomorrow," said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official whose 2002 book, "The Threatening Storm," made the case for the 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam. "ISIL is itself is the son of Al Qaeda."
Many experts attribute the lack of "unity of effort" that pushes the military option to the forefront to a lack of capability on the part of other arms of the government, such as the State Department.
"Getting the whole of government on the same page -- we have some real problems doing that," Collins said. "Part of that has to do with tradition, part of it has to do with institutional culture, part of it also has to do with authority. It's manpower and resources that is the measure."
For example, when the United States was launching the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, the State Department budget was was 49 percent of the Pentagon budget. Today, "you can't get to 15 percent, never mind 50. . . . That is a major limitation," Collins said in an interview.
Veterans of the George W. Bush administration have also acknowledged these shortcomings.
Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser from 2005 to 2009, recently blamed the US government and international community's heavy focus on the military for the failure to adequately train local police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to stabilize the countries after the end of combat operations.
The State Department "never got it done, and at the end of the day we pulled the police training mission away and gave it to the military. Turns out the military is not the best police trainer, and so again it was a classic case where we gave it to the military by default because we don't have the kind of civilian capacity in place to do it right," Hadley said. "So, I'm still not sure if we know how to do police training."
The extent to which the leaders of the US military have been grappling with the lessons of confronting Al Qaeda, ISIL, the Taliban and other militant groups is enshrined in a little-noticed but lengthy analysis— more than 400 pages in all -- that was ordered up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and unveiled at an event Tuesday.
The marching orders for the group of military scholars who wrote the report was clear: "What did we gain? What did we lose?
What costs did the United States pay for its response to 9/11, particularly from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq? How should the answers to these questions inform senior military leaders' contributions to future national security and national military strategy?"
And one of their big takeaways was that, in the end, not much was gained -- in large part because while the military mostly did its job, the rest of the US government and international community did not.
"Senior military planners must pay more attention to the linkage between political and military objectives," says the report, "Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War." "Civil and military planning for post-conflict stability operations was inadequate. Poor post-conflict planning set back operations in Afghanistan and Iraq."
The military, the study said, has a greater responsibility than ever to speak up when it believes military options are ill-advised absent a more rigorous and comprehensive strategy for what happens next.
"While the civilian leadership remains firmly in charge of the policy process, senior military figures also have an obligation to provide their military expertise and, if necessary, their respectful dissent to help prevent strategic disaster," the volume asserted.
In the wake of Paris, some voices on Capitol Hill are urging the Obama administration to beef up the non-military parts of the anti-ISIL strategy.
"It's time for a new Marshall Plan: A plan that includes the Middle East, which means modernizing schools and moderating curricula; that teaches children how to use their hands to put things together instead of blowing things up," said Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
"Not one penny of [US Agency for International Development] funds should go to any nation that doesn't commit to disallow the teaching of hatred in its classrooms."
"We need to face the truth: We are in a new world war with enemies who don't play by the traditional and historic rules of conventional warfare," he said.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.