Real War is Back

The scale of warfare in the 21st century is again evolving upward after the relative calm of the immediate post-Cold War period. This is the pattern of history. U.S. policy-makers need to understand this evolution and adapt national strategy accordingly.


By William R. Hawkins l March 9, 2015

In her testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on March 3, Under Secretary of Defense Christine Wormuth referred to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a terrorist group. This is consistent with the wording in the Joint Resolution proposed to Congress by President Barack Obama. Yet, this terminology does not fit the evolution of the threat in the region which has expanded beyond the capabilities of a mere terrorist group. The second whereas paragraph in the resolution Wormuth was discussing indicates this change, “ISIL holds significant territory in Iraq and Syria and has stated its intention to seize more territory and demonstrated the capability to do so.”

ISIL is already administrating conquered lands, levying taxes and conducting trade in oil. It has an army in the field, one that has routed regular units of the Iraqi Army. The air strikes and special operations used in the “war against terrorism” will not drive ISIL out of its holdings; yet, these are the only military tools Wormuth mentioned. It takes a ground army that can take and hold territory. The question is who is going to put the “boots on the ground” needed to win the war?

Wormuth noted that the U.S.-led air campaign has put ISIL on the defensive by destroying tanks, camps, and oil facilities, while killing troops and leaders. But any such effort is only a preliminary bombardment. It must be followed by a ground offensive to break ISIL and liberate its holdings. An offensive to take Tikrit in Iraq is underway, and there is hope of recapturing Mosul this summer. But these operations pose many questions the Obama administration has not answered.

Tikrit is a Sunni city. The Iraqi Army serves a Shiite government in Baghdad. It is reportedly reinforced by Shiite militia which are financed by Iran. There are even reports that Iranian special forces and artillery are part of the offensive. ISIL was welcomed into western Iraq by the Sunni tribes which felt oppressed by Shiite rule. Many Sunnis have been alienated by ISIL’s brutal policies and some Sunni troops are also part of the current attack on Takrit. The question is whether the Sunnis will be allowed to have their city back, or will Baghdad (and Iran) conquer it and resume their oppression?

The U.S. alliance system in the Middle East is based on Sunni governments that see Iran as the main threat in the region. ISIL has become a wild card which must be taken out of play. However, Iran cannot be allowed to gain by ISIL’s fall, or fill a power vacuum left by a weak American presence. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry (R-TX) stated, “I believe that it is also critical that we do not validate Iran’s standing in the region, either through working with them or allowing them to have threshold nuclear capability,” While Wormuth mentioned stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions, she said nothing about countering Iran’s informal empire in the region that includes large tracts of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

As the March 24 deadline looms for Iran to agree to terms limiting its nuclear program, the question is why does Tehran want the bomb? The answer is that it needs a deterrent against retaliation for its expansionist policies. Nukes will provide an umbrella for its support for terrorism and insurgency. Critics of an arms agreement say Iran cannot be trusted until it changes its regime. From the regime’s perspective, having a nuclear threat means it will not have to change. That is why the Tehran theocrats will never abandon their weapons program, whatever they may say to get sanctions lifted.

Iranian troops (or proxies) are not an acceptable substitute for U.S. troops (or allies) in the war against ISIL because there are much larger stakes in the game. War is about politics; and politics is about controlling people and territory. Only “boots on the ground” can do that. If American interests are to be protected now that real warfare is in progress (and not just terrorism), the U.S. or trusted allies must be on the spot in strength because America’s enemies already are. This is the missing element in President Obama’s approach to this conflict and why he cannot be said to have devised a strategy for victory. The U.S. military is well suited for this kind of conflict, but Washington must first understand the nature of the struggle to be able to employ its forces effectively.

Beyond ISIL are a number of other movements that have evolved beyond terrorism which threaten American interests. The White House made the proper distinction between terrorism and insurgency in the case of the Taliban. Spokesperson Eric Schultz said (January 28) the Taliban is an “armed insurgency” that uses terror tactics, but is not a terrorist group. Indeed, before 9/11, the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan and was seeking international recognition as the legitimate government. The same distinction applies to other groups including Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis (Yemen) and the rebels in Ukraine; all of whom have armies holding territory.

ISIL and Boko Haram have low capabilities because they do not receive outside support. Other insurgent armies will be more difficult to defeat because they are state-supported; used as spearheads by rival powers. Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis are backed by Iran, rebels in eastern Ukraine by Russia, and the Taliban by powerful factions in Pakistan. They have sanctuaries which shelter them from decisive combat. Drone strikes in the Pakistani frontier region has not and will not eliminate the Taliban. Drones can play an important part in a larger campaign, but there must be a larger campaign.

The scale of warfare in the 21st century is again evolving upward after the relative calm of the immediate post-Cold War period. This is the pattern of history. U.S. policy-makers need to understand this evolution and adapt national strategy accordingly.


William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.