Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq (and maybe Syria) would be “irresponsible” at this point. He argued that a political solution within Iraq is a prerequisite for any application of American power on Iraq’s behalf; as things stand now, he said, “There’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military, there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success.”
As I suggested in this space last week, I agree. I don’t see the point of killing hundreds or even thousands of Sunnis, many of them liable to be tribesmen fragilely allied with ISIS rather than dyed-in-the-wool ISIS fanatics themselves, unless there is some defined and attainable political objective to be served by it. If the situation in Iraq is as dire in institutional terms as the Secretary claims—“no government… no military”—then it’s hard to see what a U.S. political objective could stick to. And I agree again: It is that dire, and it was made even worse yesterday by Prime Minister Maliki’s defiant rejection of all advice, U.S. and Iraqi, to broaden the base of his government.
Note please that I do not demur from using force because of ISIS threats of retaliation and revenge against the United States, which have been voluble. I do not dismiss those threats. But no American should be daunted by such chesty talk: Our flag does not dip, for anyone. On the other hand, Mr. al-Baghdadi and associates have to this point neither attacked directly nor harmed any Americans, whether in the region or beyond. It is not a forgone conclusion that a new Islamist emirate set up in the Sunni territories of Iraq and Syria would focus in on what al-Qaeda used to call “the far enemy” when there are so many closer ones in their faces—any more than it is a foregone conclusion that a Taliban 2.0 regime in Afghanistan would be as dangerous to the United States as its pre-9/11 predecessor proved to be. One has to plan for the worst, and one may be more than forgiven for taking preemptive action insofar as it is instrumental to U.S. security. But to overdo it or to do it prematurely can exacerbate rather than ameliorate a problem. It’s a tricky call, always.
Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion either that such an emirate will ever be set up at all. Fanatics are not so good at governance, as al-Qaeda in Iraq proved some years ago, and they are not much better at holding together ideologically heterogeneous coalitions. Already reports are surfacing of opposition within the Sunni heartland to ISIS. One of the most intriguing is Michael Knights’ WINEP report that a rival insurgent group, Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi, perhaps led by Saddam Hussein’s old friend Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the King of Clubs from the infamous deck of cards of most-wanted Iraqis, engaged in a deadly firefight with ISIS west of Kirkuk this past weekend. That is a hopeful development.
(Let me add, parenthetically as you can see, that this group’s name identifies it with a Sufi movement within Sunni Islam, the Naqshbandi order. This is no place, believe me, to detail Sufism, the nature of a taruq, or the history of the spread of this very old order from India into the Levant in the 17th century and what has become of it since. Suffice it to say that, as all genuine area experts know, this is potentially a very big deal. Ah, and you thought this was only a Sunni-Shi’a thing we’re dealing with here? Nope, sorry: That’s much too simple a read, I’m afraid.)
And besides that, military operations among nomadic groups—and that aptly describes the anthropological character of the Sunni bedouin tribes we’re talking about, even if many have been settled for generations—tend to share a basic characteristic: Families and clans coalesce around a “big” chieftain when there is a common enemy to fight or a common opportunity to pocket, but they do not often cohere institutionally after the campaign has run its course. So with Visigoths and Mongols, so with Bedouin. So the current ISIS coalition juggernaut may stay together as long as the lead is flying, but there’s not much reason to think it will stay together very long once the dust settles. Hence, the fact that ISIS is now in something like possession of lands with oil fields is attention-arresting, but that doesn’t mean it knows how to work the wells, sell the product, or can agree among itself how to bank and spend the money. Maybe it could learn, maybe not.
Ah, but if all this (and more) is true, if ISIS never consolidates its power and becomes particularly dangerous to anyone but itself, then why on Monday did Secretary Kerry says that ISIS behavior might force the United States to act militarily? Well, we could just ascribe this sort of behavior to personality: Remember that Senator Kerry was for the Iraq War in the first place before he was against it, so why would anyone be especially surprised if he was for airstrikes on Monday before he was against them on Tuesday?
Or maybe he was and still is for them but the President thinks otherwise? If that is the case, if there is a head-on-head disagreement here, it would apparently not be for the first time.
But, alas, it’s really not so simple as a “yes” or “no” decision structure would imply. The reasons for keeping U.S. powder dry are clear, for now, or so it seems to me. But the situation is, as they say in Langley, inside the Pentagon and at Main State, “evolving.” Let’s briefly survey the uncertainties.
Had ISIS forces met any sort of significant resistance on the way south, its leaders would almost certainly have ordered (insofar as they are capable of ordering anything and being obeyed) a halt on the march toward Baghdad and instead looked to consolidate occupied areas to the north and west. But ISIS met little to no resistance as the Iraqi Army disintegrated, and the natural instinct of a nomadic horde on the make is to keep going until someone makes it no fun anymore. That’s yet to really happen.
And this is now a growing problem because on the outskirts of Baghdad are some large military bases with lots and lots of stuff in them: weapons, ammunition, APCs, artillery pieces, airplanes, pick-up trucks with machine-guns, the works. Most of this stuff, of course, is ours. One of these bases, Balad, is about 50 miles north of the city; another, Taji, is about 12 miles north. ISIS is already pretty close to Balad—too damned close.
Now, one can imagine using U.S. airpower not to kill insurgents, but to destroy these bases with their equipment so that they do not fall into ISIS’s hands. That would make for a really lousy optic, true. We would be attacking our own stuff, which can only be taken as a sign of major antecedent failure. And we would be doing it at the very same time that the Assad regime is bombing the same enemy and the Iranian regime is actively aiding the Maliki government. Still, it’s a thought.
It’s a thought, too, because that we could actually do with the military assets we have on hand. Hitting large fixed targets is not a great challenge for the U.S. military. Those who have been advocating airstrikes against ISIS’s non-formations for what are, in my view, either poor or piss-poor reasons, have yet to make a serious case for any sensible operational methodology. Let me explain.
As things stand now, ISIS forces have no tanks. They have no APCs. They have no artillery. They have no fixed logistical depots. They have little flatbed pickup trucks and an ancillary fleet of stolen cars—black Mercedes and white Renaults mostly, would be my guess—that are, truth to tell, not all that easy to hit from a jet fighter or with a drone. (Helicopters work, but helicopters can be knocked out of the sky with a slingshot-propelled rock, too.)
Moreover, ISIS vehicles are not easy to distinguish from non-ISIS-commandeered vehicles, and our warfighter-friendly intel capabilities, good as they are, would be strained mightily to solve that problem on the run. We can pick off ISIS pick-up trucks one by one, true, and we can change the psychological momentum of the southward surge by so doing, maybe. (On the other hand, anti-Sunni riots in Baghdad constitute a factor summoning ISIS further toward the capital.) But we’d be paying a whole lot of money per target destroyed. I haven’t done the math, but it could turn out to be slightly embarrassing if it came to light that it cost us roughly $350,000, say, for every Toyota that bit the dust, when you can buy one of those things off a used car lot in Waukegan for about $800.
The point is, limited airstrikes might be justified—and very soon—if we’re playing ordnance keep-away with ISIS, but it’s hard to see how airstrikes alone can do much good from a macro-military or political point of view, given the situation in Baghdad. So I find myself in the somewhat odd position of agreeing with an operational judgment of the Obama Administration; but—who knows?—these guys may change their minds in a trice, maybe for good reasons or maybe for the kind they seem so much to favor. So don’t touch that dial; this could just be getting interesting.