Bombing is not sufficient

To bomb or not to bomb was yesterday’s question. Now most of Washington is agreeing that to stop the Islamic State bombing is necessary. The questions currently asked concern how much, whether to do it in Syria as well as Iraq, the intelligence requirements and how many American boots needed on the ground, even if not in combat.

Bombing may well be necessary to stop extremist advances, but it is certainly not sufficient to roll back or defeat the Islamic State. If you think the United States is at risk from the IS, you will want to do more than bomb. Quite a few people are proposing just that, though the numbers of troops they are suggesting necessary (10-15,000) seems extraordinarily low given our past experience in Iraq.  Presumably they are counting on the Kurdish peshmerga and the 300,000 or so Iraqi troops the Americans think are still reasonably well organized and motivated. How could that go wrong?

But the military manpower question is not the only one. The first question that will arise in any areas liberated from the IS is who will govern? Who will have power? What will their relationship be to Damascus or Baghdad? How will they obtain resources, how will they provide services, how will they administer justice? The Sunni populations of Iraq (where they are a majority in the areas now held by IS) and of Syria (where they are the majority in the country as a whole) will not want to accept prime minister-designate Haider al Abadi (much less Nouri al Maliki, who is still a caretaker PM) or President Asad, respectively.

Bombing may solve one problem, but it opens a host of others. This is, of course, why President Obama has tried to avoid it. He heeds Colin Powell’s warning: you break it, you own it. The governance question should not be regarded as mission creep, or leap. It is an essential part of any mission that rolls back or defeats the IS. Without a clear plan for how it is to be accomplished, bombing risks making things worse–perhaps much worse–rather than better.

Sadly, the United States is not much better equipped or trained to handle the governance question–and the associated economic and social questions–than it was on the even of the Afghanistan war, 12 years ago. Yes, there is today an office of civilian stability operations in the State Department, but it can quickly deploy only dozens of people. Its budget has been cut and its bureaucratic rank demoted since its establishment during George W. Bush’s first term. Its financial and staff resources are nowhere near what will be required in Syria and Iraq if bombing of the IS leads to its withdrawal or defeat.

The international community–UN, European Union, NATO, Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, World Bank, International Monetary Fund–are likewise a bit better at post-war transition than they were, but their successes lie in the Balkans in the 1990s, not in the Middle East in the 2010s. They have gained little traction in Libya, which needs them, and only marginally more in Yemen, where failure could still be imminent. Syria and Iraq are several times larger and more complex than any international statebuilding effort in recent times, except for Afghanistan, which is not looking good.

Even just the immediate humanitarian issues associated with the wars in Syria and Iraq are proving too complex and too big for the highly capable and practiced international mechanisms that deal with them. They are stretched to their limits. We don’t have the capacity to deal with millions of refugees and displaced Iraqis and Syrians for years on end, on top of major crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and ebola in West Africa.

President Obama has tried hard to avoid the statebuilding challenges that inevitably follow successful military operations. He wanted to do his nationbuilding at home. We need it, and not just in Ferguson, Missouri, where citizens clearly don’t think the local police exercise their authority legitimately. But international challenges are also real. Failing to meet them could give the Islamic State openings that we will come to regret.

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3 thoughts on “Bombing is not sufficient”

  1. Daniel: As an interested layman I can’t understand why the Syrian government, which counts on the support of allies such as Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, among others, and is not loath to use the full might of its military, and has local knowledge, is unable to defeat IS in Syria?

    1. It’s not trying. The Syrian government has seen IS as a counterweight to the more moderate armed forces and has not generally attacked it. The government prefers to use IS as the boogeyman that strikes fear into regime supporters and helps to justify attacks on the moderates.

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