The Obama White House’s mental synapses must be short-circuiting right now. If the president were a robot (rather than just being a bit robotic), he would by now be repeating over and over: “Does not compute! Does not compute!” Neither of his basic operating assumptions about the anti-ISIS campaign are coming true; in fact, both are being refuted by reality in ways that suggest a fundamental flaw in the underlying mental software.
Assumption No. 1 was that a US air campaign could degrade ISIS and allow its defeat by US allies on the ground. There is no question that the US air campaign has taken a toll. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken just bragged that 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the start of bombing in August. Yet this is hard to square, as Bill Roggio notes at Long War Journal, with previous CIA estimates that ISIS only had 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. If Blinken’s number is right, ISIS should have lost one-half to one-third of its fighters, yet somehow during that time it has actually gained ground in both Iraq and Syria — oh, and estimates of its overall strength have not varied.
This means that either previous CIA estimates were gross underestimates (Roggio believes ISIS had at least 50,000 fighters to begin with) or that it has managed to replenish its losses—or both. Either way, what we are seeing now is what President Lyndon Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland discovered for themselves in Vietnam: namely that it’s impossible to win a war of attrition against a foe that has a lot more will to fight and suffer losses than you do.
Assumption No. 2 can be summed up as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In both Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration calculated that Iran was the enemy of ISIS — after all, the Iranian regime is Shiite and ISIS is a Sunni organization. Thus the administration has tacitly embraced Iran’s allies — Iraqi Shiite militias and the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — as the lesser evil in the expectation that they would do for us the dirty work of stopping ISIS. It’s a little hard to square this naïve assumption with the latest news, aptly summed up in a New York Times headline: “Assad’s Forces May Be Aiding ISIS Surge.” There are credible reports that Assad’s air force is making bombing runs in support of an ISIS offensive to capture Aleppo, a major city, from other rebel groups.
Why would Assad do this? Because he wants to reduce the battle in Syria to himself vs. ISIS on the assumption that with such an extremist foe, the rest of the world will be compelled to back him. By contrast, the more moderate rebel forces are viewed as a greater threat to his regime because they are capable of winning greater external backing. Iran is also relatively satisfied to have ISIS in control of Sunni areas in both Syria and Iraq because this gives Tehran the excuse it needs to consolidate its control over Alawite and Shiite areas — and Iran knows that it can’t rule over Sunni areas anyway.
There is nothing particularly novel about this development. There is a long history of reports suggesting deals between Assad and ISIS which range from a non-aggression pact to an agreement to cooperate in selling oil which has been captured by ISIS, while in Iraq it has long been obvious that Iranian militias are more interested in protecting Baghdad and the Shiite south than they are in pushing ISIS out of Mosul or Ramadi. The administration has just chosen to look the other way both in Syria and in Iraq rather than take on board facts that are at odds with its fundamental assumptions.
The Obama administration is now at a turning point in Iraq. It is roughly at the same place where the US was in Vietnam in 1967 and Iraq in 2006. In all those cases, the falsity of the assumptions under which we had been fighting had been revealed. The question was whether the president would execute a change of strategy. LBJ did not really do that, beyond his ineffectual bombing pauses and refusal to provide 200,000 more reinforcements to Gen. Westmoreland. It was left to Nixon and Gen. Creighton Abrams to transform the US war effort. By contrast, in Iraq in 2007 George W. Bush did execute a transformation of his strategy that rescued a floundering war effort.
Which way will Obama go now? Will he be another Johnson or a Bush? All signs, alas, point to the former. Thus it is particularly appropriate that to show progress (what used to be known as “light at the end of the tunnel”) the administration is now resorting to the discredited body counts of Vietnam days.