Where Do We Go From Here?Posted: September 1, 2014
“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” — Oliver Hardy
After only a cursory glance at the headlines of the past few days, it is easy to discern that a lot of troublesome events are occurring around the world. Two of the biggest, in my mind, involve the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the continuing rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS — although apparently the United States government is using the abbreviation ISIL, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
On the recent Sunday news talk shows, and elsewhere, there has been much finger-pointing and “coulda, woulda, shoulda” type of talk as to what needed to be done in the past. While somewhat productive in order to prevent future mistakes, the backward looking finger-pointing does nothing to resolve the situation at hand. It is disappointing, especially as many of the critics in the Senate and the House offer no way forward, only criticism of the President’s leadership or lack thereof. Unfortunately, the President showed a lot of candor but gave a disappointing public statement when he said last Thursday that we have no strategy for Syria. Those of us who have studied such things would argue that there is no clear policy either, so without either concept, there can be no policy-strategy match. As everyone who has taken even the most basic course in such things knows, the great disasters of military history are most often the result of a policy-strategy mismatch.
So, what do I say we should do so as not to be one of those backward looking critics that produce very little? I am struggling with it — it’s a tough nut to crack in all respects, which is why most of the critics would rather look back at what should have been done rather than forward as to what to do.
Part of the significant background that sometimes goes missing in each of the cases — Ukraine and ISIS — is that no one, at least no one that anyone takes seriously, is advocating that American ground combat troops get involved in either situation. (Can we please stop saying “boots on the ground?” No one I know in the military uses that expression. It is used mostly by pundits and politicians trying to use the latest lingo without really understanding what they are saying.) Even the strongest advocates of using American military power are really only advocating the use of American air power and some supporting intelligence units and special operations groups to find and identify targets. Unfortunately, I can think of no significant conflict involving the use of American military power that has been won solely in the air. Ground troops, either our’s or someone else’s working with us are required in order to defeat, or even to significantly degrade the forces at work. Thus we are back to diplomatic efforts to build some sort of coalition to fight the invaders and/or build up the host country so that it can fight on its own terms. This takes time. Sometimes, lots of time.
Currently, the Obama Administration is trying to build a coalition on both fronts to confront the Russians in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq. The Russians are more of a direct threat to Europe than the United States and ISIS is a direct threat to every country in the Middle East. Yet, trying to get other nations to take action has been difficult at best. One could question whether or not the difficulty is partly of our own making, given the ambivalent messages that the President has put forward during the last 12-15 months. It is time to step up and put some direct pressure on our allies and friends to come together and not just leave it to the United States to solve the problem. Fortunately, a few national leaders in Europe are starting to come around, but not enough and not very quickly.
I am more worried about Ukraine, in terms of long-term implications to the United States, than I am about ISIS. This is not to say that I underestimate that maniacal organization. Both situations are extremely serious to the United States and its interests, but I think strategically, Russian actions in Ukraine are more detrimental to our long-term interests. Unfortunately, that crisis is not getting the same sort of attention from our leaders, at least according to what I see in news accounts, as is ISIS. So let me address that first. As I do so, remember from my 9 August post that the basic function of military forces is to deter, defend, defeat.
Vladimir Putin is neither deterred, nor defeated by the threat of sanctions. That is clear in his actions so far. And sanctions do little to nothing to defend against an attack. This is not to say that sanctions should not be applied, only that what the Europeans have done thus far is only mildly irritating to Putin in the pursuit of his ambitions. Particularly troubling were reports about a television appearance he made in Russia on Friday where Putin openly talked about creating a new state in eastern Ukraine. It is not only for propaganda purposes that Putin and many Russians talk about Novorossiya, or the new Russia. It is a historical term that denotes most of eastern and southern Ukraine along the Azov and Black Seas. Indeed, this is the area of the latest Russian invasion (and yes, I understand the President said “incursion” in order not to create the conditions where we must act. But that’s what it is). The latest Russian military moves occurred for two reasons. First, the Ukrainian military was defeating the “volunteer” Russian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The simple operational move to relieve pressure on those forces is to open a new front, and that’s what they did, thereby giving the Ukrainian military too much to handle. Secondly and strategically, the move along the sea creates a corridor to create a land bridge between Crimea (annexed by Russia from Ukraine last spring) and other areas of Russian interest.
Remember, and I wish European leaders would review their history, that NATO was formed for the exact, and at the time the only, reason to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it seems that the leadership in Europe should see the writing on the wall. Putin is testing the waters of European resolve in order to see what type of resistance he will get as he tries to regain Russian dominance and restore the Russian Empire, goals he openly talks about. Weak sanctions will not do it. So far there have been no substantive consequences to stop his territorial ambitions.
So, what should be done? The following actions within NATO and the European Union are not exhaustive as I am sure there are additional courses of action being considered. As a minimum the west should:
- Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat.
- Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
- Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe to underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.
- Impose meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy. This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy. The western world is either serious about this threat or it isn’t. To me there is a certain element of “pay me now or pay me later”. The costs of dealing with Putin will only go up over time.
- Convene a high level diplomatic conference involving all meaningful players, and put the pressure on Russia to cease its adventures in Ukraine while trying to accommodate legitimate concerns of vital importance to Russia. This should not mean throwing Ukraine under the bus, but could include some semi-autonomy in parts of eastern Ukraine under international observers.
Putin is playing the long game. The sooner the west demonstrates to him our resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.
Defeating ISIS takes a different skill set. ISIS will not come to the negotiating table, nor should we even hint at any kind of compromise. However, diplomatic and political efforts must be made along with any military effort. Iraq must get its political house in order so that the efforts of its military are not seen in Sunni or Shiite terms only. Defeating ISIS also means that we are helping Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime in Syria and aiding the strategic interests of the Iranians. Both results are inimical to our own interests.
So what should be done? The United States cannot do this alone. While we have the military means to fight ISIS, air power alone cannot stop their reign of terror and the United States should not reintroduce ground combat troops to fight the ISIS army. The nations in the area must also recognize the threat that ISIS holds for them as well and take actions to:
- Pressure Turkey to close its borders. Intelligence reports indicate that fighters, supplies and weapons are moving freely back and forth across the border with Syria. Turkey is a member of NATO. Push them to shut down this avenue of supply.
- Pressure Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off funding to ISIS. Wealthy Sunni Arabs are secretly supplying funds and supplies to ISIS.
- Enlist Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and others to train and equip moderate fighters in Syria to increase their strength and ability to counter the Bashar al-Assad regime, and thereby pull fighters away from ISIS, as well as furthering a more moderate force in the area.
- Push for a ground offensive from the Iraqi military. American air power can support ground attacks, but cannot alone defeat ISIS.
- Equip Kurdish and other fighters that have a proven combat record.
- Continue intelligence work to find and decapitate the ISIS leadership. They have many dedicated fighters. They have also become a haven for the world’s psychopaths out for a good time. Without key leaders, the various factions within the group would fragment.
- Continue to push the Iraqi government to get its political house in order. The disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq adds fighters to the ISIS ranks. With a coalition government that genuinely looks out for the interests of all Iraqis, not just Shiites, some of the fighters from ISIS that do not share their apocalyptic view of the world may melt away.
- Continue intelligence work in the United States and elsewhere to identify and impede the travels of potential recruits wishing to join ISIS.
ISIS is an evil force that must be excised. The United States is a key player in getting an organized effort to eradicate them. However, the United States should not, and cannot be the only nation combating this threat if we are to succeed in making it irrelevant.
Critics of the President say that he is too deliberative and slow to act. I am not so sure that is a bad thing. Some events require an immediate response, others, with so much at stake, require a more thought out response. It is not too late to have a measured, coherent, international response to both of these threats. Such things take time, often frustratingly so. That said, time, tide and world events wait for no man. We need to put forth a coherent and forceful strategy to deal with these threats to our stability. And we need to be flexible enough to adjust the strategy as events unfold and respond to the actual situation.
I am sure that the professionals in the State and Defense Departments have thought this through. Let’s get on with it.