A tour of the war zones in Iraq and Syria with the top U.S. commander ends, appropriately enough, here in Turkey, the strongest power in the region and the place where the modern troubles began a hundred years ago with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The abiding strategic fact about the current war against the Islamic State is that it’s part of a bigger process of reordering the post-Ottoman structure of this part of the world. We don’t know what the outcome will be or what the borders will look like; the United States isn’t even sure what it wants, as the local powers scramble for their selfish interests. But this is the big story we often miss, amid the drone strikes and terrorist bombings.
My trip with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command , distilled two themes:
● American military power remains overwhelming. We’re still the arsenal of democracy, to use that hoary phrase, and once the American war machine gets going, it brings devastating firepower on adversaries such as the Islamic State. Now that our military is finally being employed more aggressively against the terrorist group, this enemy is in retreat and, unless we lose patience, it will eventually be shattered.
● American political power, by contrast, is limited and confused. We have conflicting goals. We talk about maintaining unitary states in Syria and Iraq, yet we’ve now created what amounts to a safe zone for Syrian Kurds and their allies in northeast Syria. As Operation Provide Comfort did for Iraqi Kurds 25 years ago, this will encourage an autonomous Kurdish zone. If American strategists have a vision to reconcile these conflicting aims, I don’t see it.
During my travels this past week with Votel, I kept encountering little nuggets that illustrated some of the realities of this conflict that the warriors see but the public usually doesn’t.
Inside one of the combat operations centers that run the war, below the massive screens that help the military coordinate surveillance drones, current offensive operations and air assets across the theater, you can see three reminders about how to process all this information: “Is a decision required?” “Who else needs the information?” “Does it change a commander’s estimate?” I wonder if there’s a similar checklist at the White House.
Traveling with the U.S. military, you’re inside a bubble of optimism that emphasizes what’s going well and suppresses the negatives, with the effect that victory always seems nearer than it really is.
One officer, in the middle of a briefing about U.S. operations against the Islamic State, summed up the situation this way: “One side is going to the playoffs, and the other is going to the parking lot.” A likable American assessment, but that’s not the way conflicts work in this part of the world. The losers never go to the parking lot, unless they’re obliterated by genocidal violence. They retreat and come back in new forms.
Another comment that may reflect our misplaced optimism came from Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who’s running the war from Baghdad and is one of the best U.S. commanders around. He said of the Islamic State’s recent upsurge in terrorist attacks against Shiites in Baghdad: “In some ways it’s an indication of our success that the enemy is forced to change tactics.” I’ve heard similar upbeat comments for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unfortunate fact is that suicide bombings, however desperate, keep this region unstable and in some ways ungovernable.
Military commanders should be careful about outrunning their political bases of support. One commander rightly said the Islamic State is like cancer. In killing it, you need to make sure you don’t kill the patient. Another used the Arabic expression “slowly, slowly,” in describing the right strategy for chipping away at the Islamic State’s capitals, Mosul and Raqqa.
If we see these wars as part of a broader, decades-long process to reshape the post-Ottoman order, we realize how easy it is to make lasting mistakes. The scheming colonial powers of 1916 have been replaced by scheming regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are playing local proxies against each other to maintain their national interests. We see the plucky Kurds, once again playing for a national status they deserve but that the region may not be able to accommodate.
And we see the United States: powerful, impatient, unsure of how to integrate its ideals and interests. My takeaway from this past week is that the military side is going well but the political needs a lot more work.