The wailing and gnashing of teeth over President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. ground forces from Syria and many from Afghanistan has obscured a more important concern regarding how best to optimize U.S. security interests in these countries with a view to the future. This also is a topic that directly relates to the President’s next choice for Secretary of Defense.
The best way of assuring that America’s security interests are duly met is by better exploiting the many advantages that U.S. aerospace power brings to both regions. America’s aerospace power allows the Pentagon to project American military influence without incurring the same degree of vulnerability, cost, and commitment that ground forces impose. Indeed, in 2001, during the opening stages of the war in Afghanistan, American aerospace power was combined with the “light footprint” of U.S. special operations and other unconventional forces acting as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors for American air forces. In conjunction with indigenous anti-Taliban Northern Alliance insurgents, they achieved what friendly ground forces alone had failed to accomplish throughout the preceding five years—deposing the Taliban regime.
Removing the Taliban regime was one of three objectives that bore directly on critical U.S. security interests. The other two were destroying al Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan and then supporting the establishment of a new Afghan regime conducive to U.S. interests. In just three short months, the airpower-enabled combination of indigenous Afghan anti-Taliban land forces and supporting teams of U.S. special operations forces achieved these objectives. The trillion-dollar question is why a succession of U.S. presidential administrations then chose to send hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops on multiple rotations into Afghanistan over the next 17 years after having already achieved those vital security objectives?
This is not simply a question of quaint historical interest, but rather an indictment of persistently-flawed senior leadership decision-making that mirrored the worst failure of the Vietnam era a half-century ago: neglecting to define U.S. security objectives clearly enough that America’s combat forces could then act both rapidly and effectively with neither more nor less than the right kind of force necessary to achieve them.
Neutering al Qaeda, and eliminating Afghanistan as its sanctuary, were critical U.S. security objectives. Attempting to convert Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian-type democracy was not. Yet without fanfare or even any serious public debate, American decision-makers gradually shifted from the entirely defensible mission of counterterrorism to the chimera of counterinsurgency, thus taking on a problem that was not ours to solve, namely, the attempted transfiguration of the culturally nascent and tribal peoples of Afghanistan into citizens of a modern nation-state.
Without question, in terms of U.S. national security interests, the situation in Syria today is different from the one we encountered in Afghanistan in 2001. However, a grave going-in error made by the Department of Defense and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), its warfighting arm in the region, in their chosen strategy to eliminate the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was wrongly assessing the Islamic State as an insurgency and then wrongly applying to it the same familiar rules of engagement and considerations as they had applied in Afghanistan.
But the Islamic State was not an insurgency. It was, by any measure, an ambitious state in the making (indeed, by its own definition, an expansive regional “caliphate”), and the most pressing U.S. security interest in countering it was eliminating the Syrian sanctuary from which it was exporting terror throughout the region. Unfortunately, the “one-size-fits-all” ground-centric strategy that CENTCOM and the Pentagon instead resorted, gave the Islamic State terrorists the gift of time.
The chosen U.S. strategy was to minimize force employment in Syria while helping the Iraqi army by spending two years building them into a fighting force that in conjunction with U.S. airpower was finally capable of ejecting Islamic State forces from their country. Only after that course of action was locked in concrete did the U.S.-led coalition turn its main effort to eliminating the Islamic State in Syria—the real locus of its power. Meanwhile, the Islamic State used that gift of time to export its ideology of evil to over 30 additional countries; to move terrorists freely out of Syria; and to slaughter innocent men, women, and children in the region, often in horrific and barbaric fashion.
Recall that CENTCOM’s ground-centric leadership accepted as axiomatic that this effort would take a long time. Military leadership with a genuine joint-force perspective and a clear-headed appreciation of the problem at hand would have recognized that a focused, intense air campaign against the Islamic State, with all its immediately targetable vulnerabilities, could have far more rapidly decomposed its ability to function. Instead, they wrongly replicated the counterinsurgency campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan seemingly by force of habit when a more air-dominant campaign could have nullified the Islamic State in four months instead of taking four years.
Today, eliminating what remains of the Islamic State, blocking Iranian weapons proliferation, and tempering Russian regional adventurism do not require an open-ended U.S. conventional ground-force presence in Syria. Indeed, that would be counterproductive. Instead, it requires a more innovative strategic approach that makes the most of the unique asymmetric attributes of American aerospace power.
Even when shackled with unwarranted constraints like zero non-combatant casualties, it was joint-service airpower that was most pivotal in terminating Islamic State operations in Iraq and decimating the Islamic State in Syria. Aerospace power remains the linchpin for securing U.S. interests in the region. However, it will require astute and open-minded DOD leadership to offer options for how best to do that to the President.
Unfortunately, while effective contingency planning should duly consider the respective strengths of all our armed forces—to include coalition and indigenous forces—a generation of ground-centric strategists buttressed by civilian and military academic theoreticians at the various service war colleges have focused on trying to turn fractionated, hierarchical societies into modern democracies. Generally, they have neglected study and consideration of the potential of modern aerospace power in developing alternative approaches to providing options to meet U.S. security objectives.
Which brings us to the issue of the President’s pending selection of his next Secretary of Defense. Clearly, the best pick would be an individual who impartially considers U.S. defense commitments and challenges. In an era of multidimensional warfare that features air, space, land, sea, subsurface, and cyberspace operations to varying degrees, the nation can no longer afford its security leaders being wedded to land-centric constructs and doctrines that date as far back as the Napoleonic era. Two decades of such leadership has arguably cost us greatly and achieved less than it could have; the President now has an opportunity to choose a forward-thinking leader of DOD who can resurrect an objective approach to joint force operations.
The President will not “lose the peace” in Syria if he uses airpower wisely—that is, in conjunction with friendly coalition ground forces who have a natural and resolute interest in controlling the territory of eastern Syria. His challenge, however, will be to find advisors who are not steeped in the conventional and costly “boots-on-the-ground” mindset that has been predominant in the Pentagon and on various Presidential national security teams in the years following 9/11.
Every military leader has both a professional and a moral obligation to propose strategies that promise to be least costly—in both blood and national treasure—in achieving America’s national security objectives. Top civilian leaders can then assess which option is most aligned with their intent. Lacking the needed expertise to appreciate the flexibility, utility, and potential of airpower, it is hardly surprising that the land-centric senior leaders of the U.S. military most recently were unable to devise and apply a strategy to terminate the Islamic State’s ability to effectively function most rapidly. For the majority of President Trump’s Administration, ground commanders have filled all the key senior national security positions—Secretary of Defense; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor; White House Chief of Staff; and Chief of Staff of the National Security Council. However distinguished and competent these individuals may have been, such single-dimension warfighting expertise does not lend itself to new ideas.
As others well recognize and appreciate—most notably the military leaders of Russia and China—aerospace power is the one indispensable “must-have” force element in modern warfare. That force element will only grow in capability and criticality in offering options for the most effective solutions to the wicked security challenges that now lie ahead. It is well past time for our nation’s senior security leaders in the administration and Congress to put someone in charge at the Pentagon who understands that reality and who realizes that true joint warfare is about using the right force in the right place at the right time—not simply looking for ways to put as many of America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way as rapidly as possible and then keeping them there indefinitely. Our commitment must be toward satisfactorily achieving our most crucial national security goals, and not using the number of U.S. boots on the ground as the main measure of merit for our strategy choices.