How Obama’s New War Could Backfire

The political imperative to “do something” against the brutal Islamic State has brought President Obama and congressional majorities together on a plan for a limited U.S. military response, but this strategy could actually make matters worse, says the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland.

By Ivan Eland

Although President Obama insists that no American military “boots on the ground” will be used to degrade and defeat the radical Islamist group Islamic State (IS), which is well funded and has captured much heavy military equipment from the Syrian military and U.S. trained and equipped Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga militias, that will make his objective much harder to obtain.

My recent book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds Are Seldom Won, which summarizes the lessons learned from many historical wars against irregular armies such as IS, concludes that is almost impossible to win against guerrillas by only attacking from the air.

President Barack Obama receives a briefing from Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Commander, U.S. Central Command, and his top commanders at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Sept. 17, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama receives a briefing from Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Commander, U.S. Central Command, and his top commanders at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Sept. 17, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Some damage can be done to armored vehicles, fixed targets such as supply depots, etc. if the guerrillas have any (IS does). Eventually, however, insurgents will blend back into the general population, and airstrikes will simply generate more fighters as a result of the outrage caused by the spike in civilian casualties.

So if boots on the ground are needed to effectively fight IS and Obama and the American people, as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq debacles, vehemently veto that idea, what is to be done? Surprisingly, the best option is for the U.S. government to do nothing.

IS is a threat to Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries, but not a direct threat to the United States. But John McCain, his equally belligerent sidekick Lindsey Graham, and other hawks will scream about how naive is the belief that IS will not eventually get around to attacking the United States.

Yet, unlike al-Qaeda, the group’s main purpose is not to attack the United States. Its primary objective is to do what it has already done, construct an Islamic State in the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria, where it wins the support of many Sunnis as a result of oppressive Shi’ite governments.

So it is not obvious that IS would focus its attacks on the United States in the future, if the United States discontinues airstrikes. Besides, many of the easy IS targets have been hit, at least in Iraq, and such attacks may quickly become counterproductive as civilian casualties mount.

In fighting an insurgency, the main objective should be, and which most traditional military organization have trouble getting their arms around, is to win the “hearts and minds” of the local population, not kill them. Mao Zedong, one of the most effective guerrilla fighters in world history, noted that winning the support of the population is key to winning this kind of irregular warfare because the population is the sea that the guerrillas swim in.

Unlike regular warfare, in which both sides wear distinctive uniforms, guerrillas without uniforms attack and then just blend back into the local populace from which they receive sanctuary, supplies and fighters. Despite Mao’s later ruthlessness upon taking power, when fighting guerrilla-style to gain power, he cautioned his fighters to treat the people with respect and fairness.

When going into Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military initially failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam War and made many of the same mistakes all over again. Instead of trying to win hearts and minds using a less violent counterinsurgency strategy, it once again wailed away with excessive firepower, thus killing or alienating too many civilians.

However, that said, fighting guerrillas is difficult, because a foreign occupier never gets the benefit of the doubt when fighting locals, even brutal locals like the Afghan Taliban or IS. Also, foreign occupiers don’t know the culture as well as locals and therefore have much less intelligence about who supports the guerrillas and who doesn’t. Thus, for great powers, if they are using their own forces to fight guerrillas, they are much more likely to lose.

Thus, boots on the ground in the fight against insurgents should be local ones anyway. That said, the Iraqi army and Kurdish pesh merga militias have not done too well so far against the battle-hardened and well-equipped IS. Fortunately, neighboring Shi’ite Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Gulf Sunni monarchies have an incentive to train and equip Shi’ite militias (Iran), the Iraqi army, or the Kurdish militias.

Therefore, regional countries should be able to handle a regional threat, leaving the United States to worry about any future training camps in IS-controlled territory that might be training terrorists to attack the United States. (As noted previously, if the United States takes a less prominent role in attacking IS, the motivation of IS to attack U.S. territory will be much reduced.)

Only if such terrorist training camps are discovered should the U.S. launch low-key, but congressionally approved, drone attacks to wipe them out; such fixed infrastructure can be targeted effectively by such limited airstrikes.

If pressure builds for the United States to get more deeply involved in the fight against IS, perhaps Congress could approve private U.S. companies, staffed with ex-U.S. Special Forces, to conduct the training of Kurdish militias, the Iraqi army, or even Shi’ite militias using weapons provided by regional powers.

Avoiding the use of U.S. military personnel for training locals might avoid the danger of later U.S. escalation, as occurred during the Vietnam War. If President Obama says it will take three years to subdue IS, try 10 or 12 or 20 years. If they succeeded at all (which most didn’t), many of the counterinsurgency episodes my book surveyed took that long.

In sum, boots on the ground are needed to effectively fight IS. However, inserting U.S. military personnel for fighting or training locals likely would be counterproductive and would paint a big, red bulls-eye on the United States.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy

7 comments for “How Obama’s New War Could Backfire

  1. Masud
    September 19, 2014 at 17:56

    “Although President Obama insists that no American military “boots on the ground” will be used to degrade and defeat the radical Islamist group Islamic State (IS) — which is well funded and has captured much heavy military equipment from the Syrian military and U.S. trained and equipped Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga militias — that will make his objective much harder to obtain.”

    I as a Muslim reject the above statement.

    To associate with Islam The group of people with the characteristics of those ascribed to so-called IS, ISIS or ISIL is to be either totally unaware and ignorant of what Islam stands for or is a deliberate attempt to melign Islam. There is no such thing as Radical Islam or Moderate Islam. Theologically Islam is a one complete entity you have to either accept it in total or reject it. In its teachings Islam generally commands its followers for the betterment of humanity with utmost stress on human dignity, social justice and preservation of life. Even during the state of war there is a strict code of conduct. A Muslim army is forbidden from killing un-armed, civillians, women children and old people, shadowy and fruit producing trees. Any group of people whose activities are against the above principles is preaching falsehood if it claims to be associated with Islam.

    On what evidence Mr. Eland claims that the weapons IS is using are captured from Syrian andIraqi armies? And if they are well funded who is funding them? Obviously it is not Iran or its allies. It must be US and/or its allies. Why is it so difficult for Mr. Eland to understand this if he is not deliberately trying to throw dust in people’s eyes?

  2. Abe
    September 19, 2014 at 12:09

    US’s ‘Coalition of the Guilty’ part of Iraq, Syria problem
    Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya

    When it comes down to it, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his killers are just the foot soldiers. The real pyromaniacs who sit in their offices and palaces in Washington, London, Paris, Doha, Ankara, and Riyadh are the ones that need to be stopped. Arsonists cannot become firefighters sent to put out the fires that they themselves have started, because they usually have an interest in seeing their fires consume the places they have set ablaze. In this case the US and its allies are the arsonists that have an interest in seeing Iraq and Syria fragmented by the fire that the “coalition of the guilty” set alight to create a “New Middle East.”

    America and its “coalition of the guilty” are pretending to fight terrorism in an elaborately staged performance for the public. When in reality, all along they have been the forces driving the butchery and terror inside Syria and Iraq. It has been Washington and its “coalition of the guilty” that have been waging a war against the Syrian and Iraqi people through the plethora of insurgent franchises that have carved niches for themselves in Syria and Iraq.

    The Iraqi and Syrian militaries and peoples have been making headway against the foreign-backed insurgencies and their reign of terror. They can finish the job themselves without US-led airstrikes. What they really need is for the US and its guilty allies to show some honesty by genuinely ending their support for the insurgencies in Syria and Iraq and to stop fueling sectarian hatred between Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians, and Shiites and Sunnis. Once America’s coalition of the guilty ends its own role as the real and main belligerents in the region the cross-border crisis in Iraq and Syria will be locally quarantined and defused with time.

  3. Abe
    September 19, 2014 at 11:58

    Terronoia Theater Presents: Staged ISIS Attacks
    By Tony Cartalucci

    Everything from a mass shooting to a bombing, and even an Operation Northwoods-style false flag attack involving aircraft could be employed to provide Wall Street and London with the support it needs to accelerate its long-stalled agenda of regime change and reordering in both Syria and across the Iranian arc of influence. Readers may recall Operation Northwoods, reported on in an ABC News article titled, “U.S. Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba,” which bluntly stated:

    “In the early 1960s, America’s top military leaders reportedly drafted plans to kill innocent people and commit acts of terrorism in U.S. cities to create public support for a war against Cuba.

    “Code named Operation Northwoods, the plans reportedly included the possible assassination of Cuban émigrés, sinking boats of Cuban refugees on the high seas, hijacking planes, blowing up a U.S. ship, and even orchestrating violent terrorism in U.S. cities.”

    That the FBI and Australian authorities are coordinating staged security operations in tandem on opposite ends of the globe to terrify their respective populations into line behind an impending war with Syria suggests a new “Operation Northwoods” of sorts is already being executed. Staged executions on cue by ISIS in the Middle East of US and British citizens at perfectly timed junctures of the West’s attempt to sell intervention both at home and abroad also reek of staged mayhem for the sole purpose of provoking war. Could grander and ultimately more tragic mayhem be in store? As ABC News’ article on Operation Northwoods suggests, there is no line Western special interests will hesitate to cross.

    With the West attempting to claim ISIS now has a “global” reach, the US and its partners’ attempts to obfuscate the very obvious state-sponsorship it is receiving will become exponentially more difficult. That the FBI is admittedly stringing along easily manipulated, malevolent patsies who at any time could be handed real weapons and sent on shooting sprees and/or bombings, Americans, Europeans, and Australians would be foolish to conclude that their real enemy resides somewhere in Syria and not right beside them at home, upon the very seats of Western power.

  4. Zachary Smith
    September 19, 2014 at 11:25

    The political imperative to “do something” against the brutal Islamic State…

    Poor Obama – he’s being forced to “Do Something”!

    Mr. Eland contradicts himself throughout. First, he speaks of the well-funded and equipped IS, but then swerves into the topic of guerrillas! From the ISIS wiki:

    Weaponry that ISIS has reportedly captured and employed include SA-7 and Stinger surface-to-air missiles, M79 Osa, HJ-8 and AT-4 Spigot anti-tank weapons, Type 59 field guns and M198 howitzers, Humvees, T-54/55, T-72, and M1 Abrams main battle tanks, M1117 armoured cars, truck mounted DShK guns, ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns, BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers and at least one Scud missile.

    “Eventually, however, insurgents will blend back into the general population…”

    These people are NOT guerrillas, and the “hearts and minds” blather just doesn’t cut it.

    Did I mention contradictions?

    1) “Surprisingly, the best option is for the U.S. government to do nothing.”
    2) “Only if such terrorist training camps are discovered should the U.S. launch low-key, but congressionally approved, drone attacks to wipe them out; such fixed infrastructure can be targeted effectively by such limited airstrikes.”

    You see, ISIS won’t hold it against us if we kill a whole bunch of them in their freaking training camps!

    If anybody can see the logic of this piece, kindly explain it to me.

    My current theory is that hardly anybody wants ISIS to become TOO powerful, but the agents of The Empire wants them to create moderate levels of havoc in the region.

    The US and its buddies created the mess in the mid-east. Like the signs in antique stores say; “you break it, you buy it”. Doing “nothing” isn’t really an option. One place where I am probably in agreement with Mr. Eland is that the current US administration will probably do the wrong thing. In my view, that will be by design.

  5. Abe
    September 19, 2014 at 11:06

    Ivan Eland persistently mischaracterizes ISIS forces as “locals.” This is sheer obfuscation.

    ISIS’ multinational military force is the product of years of western state-sponsorship.

    ISIS: Region-wide Genocide Portended in 2007 Now Fully Realized
    By Tony Cartalucci

    The logical conclusion to be drawn by those observing the last 3 years of immense funding, weapon deliveries, political, diplomatic, and even military training for terrorists fighting in Syria and now in Iraq, is that there were never any “moderates” to begin with. It was, as veteran journalist Seymour Hersh had warned in 2007, always sectarian extremists ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda that the West had planned to utilize against its enemies in the Middle East.

    To deflect the general public from ever arriving at this obvious conclusion, a myriad of public relations ploys have been designed to portray ISIS not as the armed fist of Western hegemony in the Middle East, but a villain not only beyond its control, but posing as a direct threat to the West itself. Token bombing in northern Iraq and the arming of Kurds served dual purposes. The bombings made it appear that the US was fighting, not backing ISIS, while arming the Kurds helped further Balkanize Iraq as part of the classic hegemonic stratagem of “divide and conquer.”

    More recently, in what is obvious propaganda, American journalist James Wright Foley was allegedly abducted, then murdered on video by ISIS terrorists. Throughout the video, before the alleged execution, a man’s voice, apparently the masked individual about to carry out the execution, speaks with a British accent, condemning the United States, threatening US President Barack Obama, and promising retaliation against the West.

    Regardless of the veracity of the events portrayed in the video, the fact that it was created in the first place indicates a need by the West and those directly handling, arming, and funding ISIS’ activities both in Syria and in Iraq, to create “distance” between the West and the ISIS mercenaries executing their foreign policy in their long-planned regional sectarian bloodbath. Videos like those featuring Foley, splashed sensationally across the front pages of Western websites and newspapers when US casualties in wars gone bad are otherwise buried, indicate a concerted propaganda campaign aimed at manipulating public perception, not honest, responsible reportage.

    The predictable reaction of Americans is to recoil at ISIS’ barbarism, despite similar barbarism being carried out for years in Syria and Iraq by Western-backed terrorists. With the apparent death of Foley, the US has created in the minds of many, plausible deniability regarding its well-documented role in the premeditated creation and continued perpetuation of ISIS. For Western special interests willing to lie to invade and occupy Iraq at the cost of over a million lives, including thousands of Americans, what would one more murdered American mean in an attempt to continue advancing its destructive, misanthropic agenda?

    It should be remembered that Western designs in the Middle East are but one stage of a greater agenda. The reordering of the Middle East with immense standing armies of terrorists answering to Western dictates, will be used to move against Russia in the Caucasus region, and against China within and along the boundaries of Xinjiang province.

    • Joe Richard
      September 20, 2014 at 01:29

      Well said. This is also my view through a critical analysis of global affairs after the 2nd WW that has geopolitical ramifications!

  6. jer
    September 19, 2014 at 10:44

    Nowadays Obama is almost being literally ‘manhandled’ by the Pentagon generals and their powerful backers (which include the big vultures inside the heinously pro-war US news agencies and their closely allied Wall Street commercial media) in order to make him send the US Army to the Middle East. The US Army is nothing but an army of mass rape and bloody massacre/slaughter. Very probably Obama is very well aware of this dark (satanic) fact, hence he is now finding himself getting caught in a hugely tight vice-like bind. The US capital is simply flooded to the brim with real bloodthirsty pirates.

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