30 Sep Ground Troops & the Myth of Air Power
House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview on Sunday that ground troops may be necessary in order to stop the threat of ISIS. Although his comments were interwoven with lots of unnecessary talk of ISIS being barbarians, which I don’t think is terribly helpful, I do agree with his bottom-line assessment: air power and proxy ground troops won’t be enough to win this war.
This points to a frequent mistake. Politicians think they can eliminate the cost of going to war by conducting an air war. That may work in some situations, but they are a distinct minority. The NATO bombing campaign against Serbia (led by General Clark) was frustratingly slow and borderline ineffective without the introduction of ground troops to make a real difference on the ground.
Air power is effective in some situations, especially when combined with a select number of well-trained, well-equipped, and highly motivated infantry on the ground. Air power might also be appropriate to punish an international wrongdoer and deter them from violating international law in the future, in very isolated ways.
In isolation, air power cannot win a war that is designed to deprive an enemy of governmental control over a territory. An enemy facing only air power can hunker down and wait out the air assault especially when, as in this case, the President at first announced that ground troops were off the table. Obama smartly reversed course and is now issuing more ambiguous statements so as not to motivate ISIS forces to wait out the air assault (which cannot go on forever).
True, grounds troops are not entirely absent from this conflict. It is just that they are from Iraq, Turkey, and the moderate Syrian opposition. But the Iraqi Army is incredibly weak at the moment and there is little incentive for troops to show up to fight. The Syrian opposition is also disorganized. And no amount of money and weapons is going to fix that.
Boehner is right that ground troops are necessary if the US is serious about defeating ISIS. But if that happens, I don’t think the Obama Administration will be able to hang on to the fiction that the intervention is covered by the 9/11 AUMF. A new authorization, and political buy-in from Congress, will be required.