By Daniel L. Davis, The Daily Beast
A U.S. Army officer with plenty of on-the-ground experience suggests the talking heads think through the consequences of their calls to action.
We’ve heard a lot lately about a “strategy” to take on the barbarous horde of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. At a White House briefing on August 28, President Barack Obama remarked that “we don’t have a strategy yet” and that as “our strategy develops we will consult with Congress.” Last week the President announced that we now have a “comprehensive strategy.” His critics, meanwhile, had been declaring for weeks that they were sure what should be done. Their talking-head “strategy,” expressed on countless cable news and radio talk shows, was “airstrikes,” and virtually nothing else. As it turned out, item one on the president’s four point plan was “a systematic campaign of airstrikes.” Many of those same critics were gratified.
As a soldier who’s spent a fair amount of time on the ground in conflict zones, I find this popular focus on the power of Hellfire missiles and precision bombing a little disconcerting. What many of the talking heads who’ve filled the airwaves since the savage murders of American journalist James Foley (then Steven Sotloff, and this weekend, British aid worker David Haines) apparently fail to understand is that tactics are not strategy. Without first establishing the latter, they advocate a tactic in the dark that, even if successfully attained, could worsen the situation with perverse consequences.
One especially memorable commentator to encourage bombing ISIS was the editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol. Appearing on the Laura Ingraham radio show on August 26, the conservative critic gave his expert opinion on how to deal with ISIS. “You know, why don't we just [bomb them]?” he advised. “We know where ISIS is. What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.”
Regrettably, the application of “airstrikes” and other instruments of lethal military power in the United States has become a favorite tool of statecraft: just shoot ’em and see what happens. Maybe if more of these advocates had spent a little more time in combat zones to see the terminal end of these strikes, they might have a better understanding of what is and isn’t possible. I have seen the on-the-ground results of many airstrikes, as well as the impact it had (or didn’t have) on the enemy. TV personalities often give very little consideration to what happens after the dust settles from the strike.
For example, what would happen if the President took Mr. Kristol’s advice and bombed targets “for a few weeks” and then waited just to “see what happens”? The first few iterations of air sorties would have a good chance of taking out numerous ISIS vehicles and personnel. But in short order ISIS would adjust its methods of operation to disguise vehicle movements, reposition troops and embed command and control centers more deeply into civilian areas, becoming indistinguishable from the civil population.