Capstones: New Fronts, Old Lessons

By Alan W. Dowd, 9.20.16

In case you missed it, the U.S. and its allies have opened a new front in the widening war against ISIS. Add Libya to the growing list, as U.S. warplanes began hitting ISIS positions in the coastal city of Sirte in August. What’s striking about this news is that President Barack Obama so often noted that he “was elected to end wars, not start them.”

The airstrikes in Libya underscore that almost eight years after Obama’s election—15 years after 9/11—the U.S. remains deeply engaged in what used to be called the global war on terrorism. If anything, the U.S. is more engaged in the counterterror fight—or at least more broadly, more globally engaged—today than it was when Obama took office. One analysis concludes there were three “active theaters of U.S. military involvement” when Obama entered office: Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. There are at least nine today: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Uganda and Yemen. Obama himself concedes, “I’ve ordered military action in seven countries.”

By “military action,” he means lethal force—what the Pentagon calls “kinetic operations.” Let’s focus on those seven countries.

Obama vowed to end America’s longest shooting war, decreased the number of American troops deployed in Afghanistan from 100,000 in 2011, to 32,000 in 2014, to 9,800 today, and pledged to withdraw all combat forces “by the end of 2016.” But he has reversed course, discarded the withdrawal timetable and allowed the generals to use more firepower.

Airstrikes in Afghanistan spiked this summer​, as everything from unmanned drones to massive B-52 bombers have been called back into the fight. The number of sorties with at least one weapons release has skyrocketed from 2,003 in 2014 to 9,914 in 2015, and is on track to surpass 11,900 by the end of 2016.

Why the change? A resurgent Taliban and a reconstituted al Qaeda are taking aim at Afghanistan’s Western-oriented government. The Taliban controls more of Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. We learned in late 2015 that U.S. forces launched an operation against two massive al Qaeda bases in Kandahar. Gen. Wilson Shoffner called it “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.”


Between August 8, 2014, and August 22, 2016, U.S. aircraft conducted 6,543 airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq. In addition, some 6,000 U.S. troops and military contractors are in Iraq and Syria. They are exchanging fire daily with ISIS. Some have been wounded. Some have been killed. To blunt and reverse the ISIS blitzkrieg, U.S. forces have stood up FOBs in Iraq, seized and held airbases in Syria, launched artillery from Jordan, and launched airstrikes and cruise missiles from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Tragically, what we might call “Iraq War 4.0” (following Desert Storm in 1991, the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, and the brutal postwar war and successful surge of 2004-2009) was avoidable. The Pentagon consensus in 2010-11 was that Iraq needed the U.S. military’s support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge and to keep a lid on jihadist flare-ups. Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained that “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” Before leaving his post as Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen urged the White House to keep at least 16,000 troops in Iraq. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. James Mattis (CENTCOM commander) concurred. “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Adm. Mullen’s successor, noted.

But Obama always viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments, the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

Thus, in 2012, the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, which had been decimated by the surge, “morphed into the earliest version of ISIS,” as The Financial Times reported. ISIS thrived on the symbiotic chaos of Iraq and Syria, using the unchecked Syrian civil war and the lawless lands of Iraq as feedstock for its rise. By early 2014, ISIS was rampaging through western Iraq. By summer 2014, ISIS had captured Mosul and Tikrit, and began targeting Christians and Yazidis for extermination. By August 2014, Obama returned to Iraq.

As of August 22, 2016, the U.S. conducted 4,696 airstrikes in Syria. In addition to airpower, there are at least 300 U.S. commandos in Syria.

For more than two years, the president tried to keep Syria at arm’s length, and understandably so. Americans had no stomach for another war in the Middle East. But the longer the war raged in Syria, the more difficult it was for the president to avert his gaze. Syria was not just another “quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing,” as was said in another time of troubles. The war in Syria threatened allies in Turkey and Israel, fueled jihadist groups in Iraq, destabilized Jordan, and served as a magnet for U.S. enemies like Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Early on, Syria’s civil war represented one of those unique cases where conscience and national interest overlap: Protecting the people of Syria by using airpower to constrain the Assad regime might have prevented the country from becoming what Gen. David Petraeus called “a geopolitical Chernobyl spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world.” It might have checked Iran; blocked Russia’s reckless return to the region; prevented Assad from reopening the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare; spared 470,000 Syrian lives; protected Europe from a tidal wave of refugees; and prevented the birth of ISIS. The next administration won’t have time to think about might-have-beens.

Although, U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft began hitting ISIS in Libya in late 2015, the current round of airstrikes in Libya is part of more concerted campaign: U.S. assets bombed 13 targets on a single day in August, according to The Long War Journal. The U.S. is averaging more than three airstrikes per day. And unlike other fronts, vulnerable attack helicopters, flown by Marines off the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, are engaged in Libya. In addition to U.S. airpower, The Washington Post reports U.S. Special Operations forces “are providing direct, on-the-ground support” to Libyan militias battling ISIS.

Recall that this is round two in Libya for Obama. The president dispatched U.S. assets to support NATO’s air war in 2011, which eventually toppled Moammar Qaddafi. Importantly, a U.S. Predator drone tracked and targeted Qaddafi’s convoy, leading to his capture.

The U.S. has conducted 26 airstrikes in Somalia during the Obama administration—nine this year—using a mix of manned and unmanned assets. The strikes have killed some 400 suspected militants, mostly fighters connected to al Shabaab (al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia). In addition, Navy SEALs have deployed into Somalia to target jihadist leaders. A 2013 raid triggered a massive gun battle.

Yemen is home to one of al Qaeda’s most active branches. The U.S. has carried out 162 airstrikes against targets in Yemen during the Obama administration, killing an estimated 1,182 suspected jihadists. Those numbers don’t include a drone strike that killed five al Qaeda fighters in late August. Most of the airstrikes have been conducted by drones, but not all. A squadron of F-15E Strike Eagles was deployed to nearby Djibouti in 2011; the F-15Es reportedly have conducted operations in Yemen. While direct U.S. intervention in this badly broken country has subsided since Saudi Arabia launched a protracted war against Iranian-backed militias in Yemen, the U.S. has provided intelligence, aerial surveillance and mid-air refueling to Riyadh.

Most Americans know that the long hunt for Osama bin Laden, which began in the 1990s, ended in 2011, when Obama ordered SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to eliminate the terror mastermind. What many Americans don’t know is that Obama has waged a ferocious air war in Pakistan. The U.S. has conducted 355 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, killing as many as 3,067 people. By way of comparison, the U.S. carried out just 48 drone strikes in Pakistan under President George W. Bush.

This laundry list of targets and tallies is not a reflection of Obama’s failure “to end wars” (although it may say something about his ability to grasp a fundamental truth of human conflict: the enemy gets a vote). Rather, this expanding list of warzones is a reflection of the world as it is. The return to kinetic airstrikes in Afghanistan, the relentless drone war over Pakistan, the counterterror operations from Iraq and Syria to Somalia and Libya, the proxy war in Yemen—all of this brings us full circle. As it was 15 Septembers ago, the United States remains at war with a constellation of stateless groups and rogue regimes that seek to overthrow the liberal international order America has sustained since the end of World War II. What began under the Bush administration continued under the Obama administration—and will stretch beyond the next administration.

To anyone who has been listening to national-security leaders and military commanders, this should come as no surprise: Days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush braced America for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen,” asking for “patience in what will be a long struggle.” Adm. Michael Boyce, then-chief of the British Defense Staff, grimly predicted the war on terror “may last 50 years.” Dempsey called the struggle against jihadism “a 30-year issue.” If we accept the timeline offered by the generals, we are, at best, halfway through the war on terror.

Why will this war take so long to wage and win? In simplest terms, the jihadist movement is a guerilla insurgency on a global scale, and insurgencies take time, patience and tenacity to defeat.

A RAND report details some of the successes and failures in recent decades: It took Senegal 21 years to defeat the MFDC insurgency, Turkey 15 years to defeat a Kurdish insurgency, Uganda 15 years to defeat the ADF insurgency, El Salvador 14 years to defeat the FMLN insurgency, Algeria 13 years to defeat the Armed Islamic Group insurgency. We can add to that list Colombia (which fought the FARC insurgency for 52 years, only recently sealing a peace deal) and Sri Lanka (which took 25 years to crush the Tamil Tiger movement).

This is deeply unsatisfying and uncomfortable to the American people, long accustomed to immediate solutions and push-button wars. Yet the U.S. has confronted and successfully crushed insurgencies: the Civil War in the 1800s, the Philippines in the 1900s, Iraq in the 2000s. (Regrettably, Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq gambled away what Petraeus had won in his masterful counterinsurgency campaign.) Moreover, given the duration, geographic scope, ideological dimensions, and economic and human costs of the global counterinsurgency against jihadism, it pays to recall that the U.S. has already waged and won a decades-long ideological-political-military struggle against a transnational foe. It was called the Cold War.

The good news amidst all the bad is that insurgencies are successful just 25 percent of the time. Given the brutal means of the jihadist insurgency, its backward ends and its powerful enemies, the only way ISIS, al Qaeda and their kind can succeed is if the West gives up.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose