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Opinion: The Wrong Debate on Coping with ISIS

ISIS fighters in June.

ISIS fighters in June.

Since the dawn of military aviation, proponents and skeptics of air power have vigorously debated its efficacy, often focusing on whether air power is capable of winning wars by itself. Not surprisingly, this debate is surfacing again as we consider whether and how the United States should be involved in the current crisis in Iraq.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan’s article, “U.S. Air Power Won’t Defeat ISIS,” is one recent example. Unfortunately, focusing on a narrow air power debate obscures the more serious discussions we should be having about whether the U.S. should commit forces in Iraq yet again.

In the aftermath (or near aftermath) of U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unclear why anyone would suggest that air power alone—or any other military means for that matter—can be truly decisive in war. Is Iraq at this delicate strategic inflection point today because of air or military power’s failure to deliver an enduring victory and subsequent peace? Or because of immature Iraqi political power-sharing arrangements? Or is it simply another bloody reminder that, as Clausewitz warned, no result is ever final?

In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, U.S. air, maritime, space, cyber and land superiority were collectively insufficient to deliver a decisive military result leading to a favorable, enduring political outcome. This is not to say that military force is not useful. But, we should be more sober about our ability to “fix” problems with it.

To start, we must recognize and accept that strategic outcomes are rarely, if ever, binary. Further, given that there are no goal lines in the real world, yesterday’s inconclusive outcomes are initial entry conditions for today’s strategic challenges.

A more productive debate would focus on the linkage between U.S. national interests, desired policy outcomes, and a coherent military strategy. What vital U.S. national security interests are at stake in Iraq? What impact would increased instability or ISIS “victory” in Iraq have on broader U.S. interests in the Middle East? How do those interests weigh against other U.S. global interests?

If vital interests are at stake, as they appear to be, what are the desired—and achievable—policy outcomes for the United States? What military strategy would maximize the likelihood of achieving them at acceptable cost?

Adequately addressing this last question requires a more nuanced understanding of the adversary. While ISIS does not have an internationally recognized government, it clearly has a leadership structure that defines and pursues organizational interests and objectives. We should not to rush to judgment about the motivations and decision calculus of those leading the group.

Therefore, it may be too early to declare ISIS is invulnerable to coercion—though its degree of vulnerability is certainly worthy of deeper exploration. Even if ISIS proved incoercible, it is unclear that the complete annihilation of the group would be required in order to return control to the Iraqi government.

Further, some argue that air power is an ineffective coercive instrument against non-state actors, especially because of the nature of available targets. Though economic and infrastructure targets are almost certainly not the strategic center of gravity for ISIS, as they were for Milosevic in Kosovo, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t targets that would undermine the group’s sources of power, influence, and legitimacy.

Moreover, air power is rarely, if ever, employed as a stand-alone solution. Persistent intelligence, surveillance. and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and other air assets typically contribute to an intelligence picture fused from a variety of inputs. ISR in this scenario would certainly include “boots on the ground”—those boots could be Iraqi, or one of the 300 American advisers. Regardless, I’d suspect that militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere have a profound appreciation for the ability of air power assets to find them and strike. They are probably unconcerned whether air power is doing that alone, or with assistance from platforms or people operating in other domains.

Instead of debating the efficacy of just air power we should focus instead on those critical questions that lead to enhanced appreciation for the potential task at hand. Heeding Clausewitz’s advice about understanding the nature of the war goes a long way toward helping us frame an appropriate military strategy that supports desired policy outcomes.

While air power alone may not defeat ISIS, it does provide palatable options that could improve the situation on the ground. In concert with other military and non-military means, air power could help buy time and space for a reeling Iraqi government, as Dolan suggests at the end of his article. That sentiment captures a valuable perspective on U.S. interests, objectives, and likely limits of U.S. involvement, and serves as a departure point for further debate. Our intellectual energy is far better spent contemplating how best to secure our national security interests than debating which domains or services deliver the most decisive outcomes.