Continuing the weekly professional discussion of military affairs upon Twitter, today’s piece dovetails off of a piece by our Defense Studies Department, “Land Power and the Islamic State Crisis.” It is a very good summary of the issues, and leads the reader to the unexpected conclusion that the thing which had seemed to be the answer to the current conflicts may, in fact, not lead to a satisfactory conclusion. This piece, for the purposes of discussion, will argue that tactical prowess notwithstanding, at this point Western land power cannot win this war. Read Dr. Tuck’s piece and this one, then join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.
“In the end, then, the dilemma facing policy-makers in the fight to stop Islamic State lies is the fact that land power might have the intrinsic power of decision in war; but there is nothing intrinsic to land power that guarantees a decision in our favour.”
That is the money quote from our Defense Studies colleague, Dr. Christopher Tuck. So many have been shouting for Western “boots on the ground” over the past weeks, but there is vastly less real consideration of what that would mean at any level of concern to military affairs, from tactics to policy. Despite absolute tactical proficiency to do so, to enter the conflict on the ground to fight and defeat ISIS is not currently in American interests or, more importantly, those whose lives and fates are so intimately tied to whether and where the ISIS flag continues to fly.
It must be very clear that casualties caused by Western and American armed forces, whether civilians or even the enemy, have a pernicious negative effect. In the former, it increases the moral and human distance between us and those on the ground we mean to support. While it is entirely possible to successfully prosecute a military campaign where local casualties are high and local support is maintained – the campaign in Western Europe to overthrow the German occupation in WWII, for example – this requires a significant foundation of trust and strong shared objectives. Neither currently exists in the region, although it may be possible that Iraq is beginning to manifest the necessary will and interest. Recent calls for increased American assistance from the Government (which is enjoying some greater amount of legitimacy than Maliki’s), from local civilian leaders, and from Iraqi Kurdistan suggest that such support might be growing. Cultivating this sentiment will take smart and sensible diplomacy, both from US/Western actors as well as regional partners. But that will take work, and does not change the contemporary problems.
With respect to the latter, you will likely pause to question why I believe that enemy losses to our military action are detrimental to our strategic purposes. However, as it must be clear at this point, ISIS’s strengths are not wholly or even in the majority on the battlefield. They are, in that domain, adequately sufficient, making good use of their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses. There are certain aspects of their campaigns that have been relatively sophisticated – the reconnaissance and battlefield preparation for the campaign in Anbar  should not be undervalued. Nevertheless, we should also note that their military success has been built more significantly upon their abilities to parlay the sentiments of local populations to their tactical and strategic benefit than upon their abilities to fight. But at the end of the day, ISIS’s strength is in its communications and propaganda. And it is in this realm that every fighter killed by Western action becomes nightmarish for us, as each becomes a martyred hero capable of encouraging the recruitment of future fighters. Simply put, the blood we spill is like fuel to the fire.
“We are your sons. We are your brothers. We came to protect your religion and your honour.” This, more than anything else, is ISIS’ selling point on the ground, why they have not yet been pushed out by the locals in whose name they are fighting and attempting to govern. That is where the fight is. And as it stands, on their own Western boots have neither the strategies nor the tactics to sell or make that promise.
So, simple questions for this week’s discussion.
1. In the short term you cannot change the context. So, what do you do? Contrary to the hype, “boots” are not the limit of Western military power – and for that matter, neither is airpower. So, what are the remaining elements of our military capabilities that could be used to strategic advantage against ISIS?
2. In the medium to longer term, the context is malleable. What military and political efforts would help to shape the context and increase the effectiveness of Western military activity, to include the option to use ground troops if that is deemed necessary and of potential utility?
 In “Clanging of the Swords, IV” the Raafidah hunters which targeted Iraqi military personnel were brutal, but that should not belie the sophistication of the preparation and execution of the mission to utterly dislocate the Iraqi Army forces. The video is awful, but does offer good military insights.