Our Strategy’s Cost-Benefit Conundrum
News reports indicate that President Obama’s replacement for outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Defense under Leon Panetta. Carter is a personable and extremely able man, with considerable overseas experience and an understanding of how the department works. Hagel’s departure, however, could offer a cautionary tale for the incoming secretary.
Hagel, the White House explained, fulfilled his role admirably but the nation needs a secretary better suited to devise a strategy and preside over the challenge posed by the growing threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But the day after Hagel announced his intention to leave, an unnamed senior defense official told the Washington Post, “We don’t foresee any major changes to the strategy against ISIL [ISIS] as a result of the secretary’s resignation. He helped craft it.” Though, it was conceded that some minor adjustments might be necessary.
Others are convinced that Hagel’s ouster was not due to possessing the wrong skill set, but the result of tension between the Pentagon and the White House over how to manage U.S. national security. In the same piece, a former defense official gave credence to this theory: “Whoever the new secretary of defense is, [he or she is] probably going to want to discuss with the leadership of the National Security Council the scope of freedom for decision-making at the Pentagon.”
Administration officials are clearly divided on the U.S. strategy for meeting this threat, and the White House has apparently dominated the agenda. Many experts acknowledge, however, that the President’s determination to use “limited force” makes it unlikely that it can, by definition, be successful. A strategy that relies primarily on a bombing campaign comes with problems. Such aerial attacks are satisfying politically, but may not be enough to get the job done. If, however, airstrikes are ramped up, the risk of collateral damage and loss of civilian life increases.
One major difference between the current aerial campaign against ISIS and previous military engagements in the Middle East is the number and pace of U.S. airstrikes. For instance, during the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991, coalition aircraft flew nearly 50,000 sorties over the period of 43 days. By contrast, the New York Times reported last month that the current campaign against ISIS averages “5 hits a day” – a drastically lower frequency of bombardment. Although the former campaign engaged a more conventional enemy, one stark difference is that the 1991 coalition was supported by a “massive coalition force on the ground” that helped identify and pinpoint targets of interest. With President Obama’s continued insistence that there will be no American “boots on the ground” besides military advisors, it is hard to see how the current campaign against ISIS will increase its efficacy. And ultimately, if larger and larger numbers of ground troops are eventually deployed to improve the badly needed local intelligence for targets, the U.S. and its allies are likely to get increasingly bogged down – again – in the very region it just left.
Mark Gunzinger and John Stillion, both senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, offered another interpretation with respect to Obama’s decision to use limited force. It may “reflect lingering doubts by some policy makers over how serious and far-reaching the threat of an Islamic State caliphate really is to our nation’s vital interests.”
At the same time it might also reflect the views of other experts that our overall strategy in the Middle East has been either inadequate or counterproductive. Only a week before Hagel’s resignation, the Institute for Economics and Peace released its latest Global Terrorism Index. In their report, which was covered by the Washington Post, they wrote: “The number of terrorist incidents increased from less than 1,500 in 2000 to nearly 10,000 in 2013.”
Furthermore, the report pointed out that during that thirteen year period 60% of the attacks occurred in places where U.S. troops were engaged, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (where the U.S. has conducted an extensive drone campaign), and Syria (where the U.S. has imposed airstrikes). Among the countries with large increases in terrorist activity, only Nigeria has avoided engagement with the U.S. military.
The report suggests that the increase in terrorism has been created by “large power vacuums” that have “[allowed] different factions to surface and become violent.”
The price tag to American taxpayers for this outcome? “$4-6 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with anti-terrorism efforts elsewhere—according to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government,” which was cited in the same article.
Debates will continue within the more opaque sectors of our government over our strategy to defeat ISIS (as well as other extremist groups in the Middle East). However, it is vitally important that our policymakers acknowledge that despite the international turmoil, Americans are war weary and unlikely to sit still for another ten years of open ended conflict—especially with such a staggering cost-benefit ratio.
I asked one of the Middle Eastern ambassadors to the United States what he thought of our policy toward ISIS. In a nutshell he said: Extremist groups come and go. “First there was al Qaeda and now there is ISIS, next it will be some other group. What we need,” he said with conviction, “is a comprehensive strategy for the region,” – not just narrow plans formulated on a country-by-country basis.
This must be preceded, I would add, by a clearer notion of what we are trying to accomplish over the long term, along with a realistic assessment of whether that goal is sustainable. It would not be too far-fetched to say that if the administration does not spearhead a fresh, clear-eyed, and practical review of our strategy, the new secretary of defense might find himself similarly hobbled by a White House that is—again—unhappy with the results of the current military campaign.