Small Wars Journal

Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State: The “Boots on the Ground”

Sat, 09/20/2014 - 6:40pm

Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State: The “Boots on the Ground” Fallacy by Anthony H. Codesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies

There are times the United States does not need an enemy in going to war. It poses enough of a threat to itself without any foreign help. The current debate over ground troops in Iraq and Syria threatens to be yet another case in point, compounding the American threats to America that have done so much damage in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the earlier fighting in Iraq…

Read on.


Edited and added to:


"It is not a fight directed at the Islamic State alone in Syria. Even the best outcome in degrading and destroying the Islamic State will not produce a broad political victory against violent Islamic extremism. It will not defeat such extremism in Iraq or Syria, only suppress it to the extent to which key ethnic and sectarian factions find a better alternative, and the broader threat of violent religious extremism will almost certainly continue to grow in the rest of the Islamic world."

So, let us consider exactly what it will take to "produce a broad political victory against violent Islamic extremism."

Or, stated more-correctly/concisely:

Let us consider exactly what it will take to allow that the populations within these regions (and, indeed, elsewhere in the world) will accept the transformation of their states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. Herein, "Islamic extremism" to be seen as the manifestation of resistance to this often considered unacceptable and/or unwanted activity.

Thus, and to tie everything together:

Will "boots, boots, boots" or, for that matter, "bombs, bombs, bombs" -- in Iraq, Syria and/or elsewhere -- provide that resistance to the westernization of such states and their societies is either ended -- or, if not ended -- then at least be brought within manageable levels of control?

I think not.

And Anthony Cordesman, in his paragraph above, seeming to come to this exact same negative conclusion.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 09/20/2014 - 8:45pm


(QUOTE) To begin with, this is not simply a fight against the Islamic State. In fact, the key center of gravity in this campaign is to create something approaching a unified Iraq that is not dependent on Iran, or divided into Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunni, and Kurd. There can be no meaningful military victory in Iraq without Iraqi political stability, and changes in the quality and equity of governance that offer every major faction hope and an incentive to cooperate. Moreover, there can be no meaningful military victory unless these changes create a structure of Iraqi security forces that can win back and then secure all of the country. (END QUOTE)

(the above statement is probably one of the best insights which has been lost in all the discussion about boots on the ground - I think the administration's emphasis on no boots on the ground may go down in history as one of the bigger strategic communications miscalculations.)

(QUOTE) Iraq still has effective combat units in spite of Maliki, but it is going to need forward Special Forces, ranger-type troops, and other teams of experts to help coordinate, train, and link ground and air power. These need to be embedded at the combat unit level, they need to be armed, they need to be capable of self-defense, and they need to be prepared to take casualties and have medical aid.
Doing it their way—rather than trying to make them do it our way in spite of cost and major cultural differences—is critical. However, helping them change “doing it their way” to deal with maneuver, combined operations, land-air warfare, and develop leadership in complex operations is critical. This can only be done forward and in combat. “Force generation” in the rear is equally necessary, but is never enough. It does take a limited number of U.S. “boots of the ground” that will effectively be in combat to make the difference. (END QUOTE)


(QUOTE) This is the plan and the risk the administration should have presented to Congress from the start. This is the level of U.S. involvement in Iraq the President should have had the courage to explain and defend. This is the level of U.S. “boots on the ground” the Congress needs to understand, debate, support, and properly resource. The political risks already are high enough. Trying to make the Iraqi side of the campaign work on the basis of air strikes and force generators and enablers on the ground that can’t go forward and can’t be where it will count most is a recipe for failure. (END QUOTE)

I think what Dr. Cordesman has outlined is the strategy that both the Pentagon and the President want. I think the President's advisers may have counseled what might look like a bait and switch when this turns out to be the strategy that we will execute in the months to come. But we have tried so hard to address the perception of war-weariness and tried to prevent the domestic political backlash that it is going to get harder and harder to execute an agile strategy to do much of what Dr. Cordesman recommends. Again, I know that politics trumps all - except leadership. Sometimes leadership needs to trump politics in order to do what is right.

One thing about advisers forward with combat troops and air power. Yes our Air Force and Naval Aviators can hit what they are aiming for and with their advanced targeting capabilities may not need the kind of support from the ground that has been necessary in the past. What US advisers on the ground are really needed for is to advise and help the Iraqi ground forces to maneuver and exploit the effects of air power. Air power alone won't do the job. The ground force cannot do the job if it is not synched with air power. The Iraqis on their own are not capable of orchestrating and coordinating their ground operations with our air power. Experts are needed for that. Therefore we need US forces forward.