As 2014 fades away into history it is good to reflect on this year’s strategic and tactical successes and failures. Throughout the year there were a multitude of crises which no one could have predicted in their entirety, which involved the use of American instruments of power. The overarching theme of our engagements in the world this year can be characterized by the saying: two steps forward, one step back. Our national foreign policy apparatus is slowly moving in the right direction, but here and there we are still distracted by the conflicts that have no realistic possibility of major impact to our way of life at the expense of the ones that do.
Tactically we reigned supreme. Any time US combat forces have been involved in operations around the world, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan we have been tactically successful. The OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) premise remains true. Especially with regards to Air Power employment our adversaries can not even Observe out intentions. Which leads to complete battlefield dominance on our part. We on the other hand can run the OODA loop at our place and time of choosing. The past four months of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria with no US losses clearly showcases our tactical success. The strategic effects are a different story, but no one can deny the US military is tactically supreme, at least against low tech opponents. Whether that same tactical prowess can be carried over to a conflict with a near peer adversary is unknown, but for now the tactical missions assigned to the US armed forces can be accomplished with little difficulty.
Strategically on the other hand we are still having trouble finding the right strategy for each crisis we encounter. There have been some good steps we have taken this year and some not so well thought out. The good this year, was our response to the developments in Ukraine. The economic sanctions against Russia were exactly what our response should have been. Ukrainians are a nation of 45 million people and they can, if they have the will to do so, fight off Russian aggression. The US sanctions by themselves would not accomplish much quickly but they are useful in weakening the Russian president in the long term. The Russian economic free fall of the past few weeks only highlights the success of the sanctions regime. Given the fact that no one now is calling Putin’s moves strategically brilliant is a clearest indication that the strategy for dealing with Russia is the right one. Hopefully next time around the people that were proclaiming Putin’s genius will be ignored with regards to the foreign policy strategy discussions.
With regards to Iraq and Syria. Here is where the bad strategic decision making is evident. Our current strategy of air strikes without any long-term planning for viable political solution is self-defeating. Pouring our resources into the area to support the local forces is not the answer. The Islamic State has established itself over the past few years without any help or foreign support, the Iraqis should be able to do so to. ISIL were able to come from nothing and now control parts of Syria and Iraq. The reason they are able to do so is Sunni Arab desire for power, lost after Saddam’s defeat.
Our major strategic mistake in Iraq is our continued attachment to the idea of unified Iraq. As mentioned in previous posts unified Iraq is an idea whose time is no longer viable. The differences between Shiite and Sunni can no longer be papered over. The best thing we can do for Iraq is to divide into three different states. It is highly unlikely that the Sunni Arabs and Kurds will accept the continued Shiites Arab domination in Iraq. Therefore no matter how much we would like the Iraq of 1990s and not coming back. The Shiite dominated Iraqi army and militias will not be able to peacefully subdue the Sunni areas of Iraq under Islamic State control. While there is no doubt we will weaken or ultimately destroy the Islamic State, another organization will take its place to fight for Sunni interests.
With regards to Syria. The story there is the same. Our air strikes can and will degrade or destroy the Islamic State however something similar to it will rise up and its place. Until the Sunni Arabs accept their defeat or modify their political goals, all our actions will do is achieve tactical success without strategic impact. Combined together Iraq and Syria demonstrate a continued lack of strategic vision with regards to the Sunni Arab fundamentalist problem. A much better strategic goal would have been to let the Iraqis handle their own problems while pushing for the separation of Iraq into three viable states the Shiite Arab, the Sunni Arab, and Kurd. Similarly in Syria we should have pushed for the division of Syria into Sunni and Allawite/Christians states. To pretend that in either country the old borders can hold, is to delude ourselves and set an unachievable strategic goal.
In Afghanistan our strategic goals need adjustment. Our continued support for the current government of Afghanistan is not achieving our desired strategic results. Given the current political situation there, it is clear that the local elites do not view the situation there as critical. The delay in forming the government only underscores the fact that we seem to care more about Afghanistan then they do. Our support should have been withdrawn until the Afghans showed that they actually wanted to fight for and govern their own country. The U.S. presence there only enables the current Afghan elites and to enrich themselves at our expense. Until that ends well matter how tactically successful our strategic objectives will not be accomplished. To compare, the Taliban did not have a massive influx of money and trainers to create a viable combat organization. Unlike our Afghan partners they actually seem to have the will to fight.
Therefore 2014 ends on a somewhat positive note. We are slowly learning how to use a strategy commensurate with a problem we’re facing. The example of Ukraine should be clear in our minds as a proportional response to a specific problem base on achievable goals. The Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan examples on the other hand showcase our continued lack of understanding of how to accomplish our desired strategic goals. Unfortunately in that area we still mistake tactical success for strategic achievement. No matter how many bombs you drop or troops you train if the initial strategy is unachievable with success will be impossible to come by. And so two steps forward, one backwards.
Quick glance at 2015. While it is impossible to predict what will happen in future some trends are clear. Russia will continue its downward spiral. It is unclear at this time if this will lead to any political change in that country, but it does make it more painful for Mr. Putin to continue on the present foreign policy course. The Ukraine conflict itself will be solved by Ukrainians. If they are smart and the use their time wisely they could create enough combat units to provide military solution to the problem of Russian aggression in 2015. Specifically if they had a number of fully combat capable combat fighter/bomber squadrons those could truly prove decisive in combating the Russian incursions.
In the Middle East our current strategy will no doubt bring tactical success. What will not change is the fact that strategically we will still be facing a Sunni fundamentalist group under a different name. The name might change from ISIL to something else, but the results will remain the same. The Iraqi army could possibly take back some of the land occupied by ISIL but it is highly unlikely that they could do so in the face of Sunni resistance across all Sunni areas. As bad as ISIL is, it does represent the response of the Sunni Arabs in both Syria and Iraq to the lack of their political power. It is a given that another organization will take ISIL’s place to promote Sunni Arab goals. The best thing we can do in 2015 is to set up both Syria and Iraq for a peaceful breakup. Only then, separated into individual nation-states can the inhabitants of those two countries build a viable future.
Our greatest danger in 2015 however lies in the South China Sea. It is there that our next conflict against a near peer adversary has the highest potential to begin. The consolidation of power by Xi in China will continue. Combined with the current nationalist Chinese rhetoric this could lead to a series of escalating provocations over South China Sea to which we would have no choice but to respond. The threat of this conflict means our forces cannot be spread thin fighting in conflicts where we aren’t achieving our strategic objectives. The South China Sea has the greatest potential to be a threat to our way of life. Low probability, but extremely high impact event of US/China confrontation has the greatest chance to start there. The right strategy in other parts of the world is what would allow us to successfully contain this possible conflict and why we can no longer afford in 2015 the “tactics first” strategy in the Middle East.