Like my peers, I argued to stay the course, to persist and persist, to ‘clear/hold/build’ even as the ‘hold’ stage stretched for months, and then years
Similar to the way Israel stands against Hamas and Hezbollah, hybrid organizations that combine terrorist, guerrilla and military elements into one entity, the United States is conducting a campaign against Islamic State (ISIS). Although the organization suffered a defeat in the battle for Mosul, it is far from disappearing from the stage.
In an article he wrote in 2014, retired US general Daniel Bolger, who rose through the ranks of the Army infantry units and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, admitted (with uncommon integrity) that the US, himself included, is losing in the war against terrorism. The US, he wrote, “did not understand the enemy, a guerrilla network embedded in a quarrelsome, suspicious civilian population. We didn’t understand our own forces, which are built for rapid, decisive conventional operations, not lingering, ill-defined counterinsurgencies. We’re made for Desert Storm, not Vietnam. As a general, I got it wrong. Like my peers, I argued to stay the course, to persist and persist, to ‘clear/hold/build’ even as the ‘hold’ stage stretched for months, and then years.”
That strategy was wrong and, as he points out, the American people had never signed up for this sort of war. According to Bolger the Surge strategy “in Iraq did not ‘win’ anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves.” In the meantime the enemy, terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida, just let the attrition war take its toll, knowing that in the end the price would be too high and the US would back away. It happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and one can assume that ISIS expects that the US will not commit its forces a third time.
Bolger is not the only critic of the way the US fights its wars. Retired colonel Douglas A. Macgregor, a decorated combat veteran who has spent most of his career in the US Army Armored Branch, and like his comrade in arms Lt.-Gen. “H. R.” McMaster (the new national security adviser) fought in the Battle of 73 Easting during the Gulf War. While he was in uniform, and even more so after his retirement, he published several books about the much needed reform in the US ground forces.
In his book Transformation under Fire (Praeger, 2003), he stated that the way the US military prepares for its present challenges reminds him of “the attitudes prevalent in the post-Civil War army. Instead of adapting tactics, equipment, and organization to cope with the Native American enemy, each Indian campaign was treated as though it were the last because the army wanted to refight the Civil War, not fight Native Americans on the western frontier. Ironically, when the Spanish-American war broke out, the US army was no more ready than it had been to fight the Confederate Army at Bull Run” (Page 14). Much the same thing can also be said about the IDF land forces’ readiness for the Second Lebanon War and operations in the Gaza Strip.
In a recent testimony he gave to the Air-Land Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Macgregor said that in order “to terminate future conflicts on terms that favor the United States and avoid long, destructive wars of attrition, the US armed forces must combine the concentration of massive firepower across service lines with the near-simultaneous attack of ground maneuver forces in time and space to achieve decisive effects against opposing forces.” That statement sounded like it was taken from the IDF strategy published by IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eizenkot in 2015.
In a war, Macgregor emphasized, one cannot conduct the fighting from afar, using only air power, artillery and precision-guided munitions. To achieve a decisive outcome, or at least a more clear and concrete achievement, one must maintain presence on the ground. In his book, Macgregor cites former IDF general Doron Almog, who said that if one loses “the close fight… the rest is irrelevant” (Page 227). Almog, who in 1982 led the 35th Paratroopers Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion through heavy fighting against PLO insurgents and the Syrian army in Lebanon, knew what he was talking about.
Macgregor wondered if the strategic impact would have been different if the US had chosen to deploy ground forces on several occasions.
“Would the introduction of a robust strike force of Army Rangers into the target area where [al-Qaida] forces were identified in 1998 have enticed [al-Qaida] into a fight with US forces that they could not have possibly won?” (Page 66). Such an attack was carried out on October 2001, when 200 Rangers of 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, the army’s elite light infantry, led by then-colonel Joseph Votel, parachuted toward an airfield south of Kandahar and attacked several Taliban targets. The purpose, according to Votel, was “to go in there and basically conduct an airfield assessment, to destroy the Taliban forces that were operating in that area and to gather information for intelligence use.” During the raid, as Macgregor predicted, the forces hardly encountered any resistance.
Votel is now commander of US Central Command. As such, he is the general who commands US troops in the war against ISIS, under which Ranger and Marine units were recently deployed to Syria to support preparations for the fight for Raqqa. Therefore he must, as Bolger warned, make sure that the enemy’s logic and formations are clear, and form a plan that includes boots on the ground. It should be very similar to what Macgregor suggested, and in accordance with IDF strategy, that states: “A combined, immediate and simultaneous strike, using two basic components: the first – immediate maneuver, to harm the enemy, conquer territory, reduce the use of fire from the conquered area, seize and destroy military infrastructure, and affect the enemy’s regime survivability. The second – extensive strategic-fire campaign, based on aerial freedom of action and high-quality intelligence.” US forces, along with the local Syrian forces, cannot afford to lose the close fight on the ground.
The author is the coordinator of the Military and Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the founder and operator of the blog “In the Crosshairs” on military, security vision, strategy and practice.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", March 21, 2017)