By Andrew J. Bacevich
Nov. 28, 2015
Not so long ago, David Cameron declared that he was not some ‘naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet’. Just a few weeks after making that speech, Cameron authorised UK forces to join in the bombing of Libya — where the outcome reaffirmed this essential lesson.
Soon Cameron will ask parliament to share his ‘firm conviction’ that bombing Raqqa, the Syrian headquarters of the Islamic State, has become ‘imperative’. At first glance, the case for doing so appears compelling. The atrocities in Paris certainly warrant a response. With François Hollande having declared his intention to ‘lead a war which will be pitiless’, other western nations can hardly sit on their hands; as with 9/11 and 7/7, the moment calls for solidarity. And since the RAF is already targeting Isis in Iraq, why not extend the operation to the other side of the elided border? What could be easier?
But it’s harder to establish what expanding the existing bombing campaign further will actually accomplish. Is Britain engaged in what deserves to be called a war, a term that implies politically purposeful military action? Or is the Cameron government — and the Hollande government as well — merely venting its anger, and thereby concealing the absence of clear-eyed political purpose?
Britain and France each once claimed a place among the world’s great military powers. Whether either nation today retains the will (or the capacity) to undertake a ‘pitiless’ war — presumably suggesting a decisive outcome at the far end — is doubtful. The greater risk is that, by confusing war with punishment, they exacerbate the regional disorder to which previous western military interventions have contributed.
Even without Britain doing its bit, plenty of others are willing to drop bombs on Isis on either side of the Iraq-Syria frontier. With token assistance from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, US forces have thus far flown some 57,000 sorties while completing 8,300 air strikes. United States Central Command keeps a running scorecard: 129 Isis tanks destroyed, 670 staging areas and 5,000 fighting positions plastered, and (in a newish development) 260 oil infrastructure facilities struck, with the numbers updated from one day to the next. The campaign that the Americans call Operation Inherent Resolve has been under way now for 17 months. It seems unlikely to end anytime soon.
In Westminster or the Elysée, the Pentagon’s carefully tabulated statistics are unlikely to garner much official attention, and for good reason. All these numbers make a rather depressing point: with plenty of sorties flown, munitions expended and targets hit, the results achieved, even when supplemented with commando raids, training missions and the generous distribution of arms to local forces, amount in sum to little more than military piddling. In the United States, the evident ineffectiveness of the air campaign has triggered calls for outright invasion. Pundits of a bellicose stripe, most of whom got the Iraq war of 2003 wrong, insist that a mere 10,000 or 20,000 ground troops — 50,000 tops! — will make short work of the Islamic State as a fighting force. Victory guaranteed.
And who knows? Notwithstanding their record of dubious military prognostications, the proponents of invade-and-occupy just might be right — in the short term. The West can evict Isis from Raqqa if it really wants to. But as we have seen in other recent conflicts, the real problems are likely to present themselves the day after victory. What then? Once in, how will we get out? Competition rather than collaboration describes relations between many of the countries opposing Isis. As Barack Obama pointed out this week, there are now two coalitions converging over Syria: a US-led one, and a Russia-led one that includes Iran. Looking for complications? With Turkey this week having shot down a Russian fighter jet — the first time a Nato member has downed a Kremlin military aircraft for half a century — the subsequent war of words between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin gives the world a glimpse into how all this could spin out of control.
The threat posed by terrorism is merely symptomatic of larger underlying problems. Crush Isis, whether by bombing or employing boots on the ground, and those problems will still persist. A new Isis, under a different name but probably flying the same banner, will appear in its place, much as Isis itself emerged from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq…………..