There’s been some chin pulling about whether Kobane is strategic for the US. Methinks that some of this is encouraged by nudges from people in the administration, who really don’t want to be involved there.
Truth be told, it is strategic, but it isn’t. Paradoxically, it is strategic because of the lack of a US strategy.
That’s not quite right, exactly. Obama has a strategy to achieve an objective defined by what he wants to avoid, rather than what he wants to achieve. But he has to do something, so he has effectively fallen back onto the last refuge of the strategically bankrupt, or those lacking the capability (or unwilling to use the capability) to take the initiative and succeed: attrition. When a campaign is focused on body counts, it is likely to be strategically barren.
Famous battles of attrition throughout history (think Verdun) have been hideously costly to both sides. US airpower allows it, under certain circumstances, to attrit its enemy at virtually no risk of casualties. The problem is that those circumstances are largely under the control of the enemy. An enemy that disperses and burrows into urban terrain is relatively immune, although by doing so it can hold what it has but can’t take more.
What is remarkable about Kobane is that IS has eschewed those tactics, and has concentrated large numbers of men and equipment, thereby presenting a target to American airpower. Given the American attrition strategy, these concentrations have become a strategic objective by default. It’s in that sense that a lack of strategy beyond attrition makes Kobane strategic, but then only because for some unfathomable reason ISIS decided to expose itself there.
As this Max Boot article argues, using Khe Sanh as an example, this can inflict large losses and keep even an isolated position from falling. But it cannot inflict a real defeat on ISIS (although the morale and propaganda effects of a failure to take Kobane would inflict some damage on it).
There are concerns that going after Kobane is limiting American ability to influence the battle in other, more important locations, like Mosul and Anbar. But this must be a consequence of self-imposed limitations on the resources committed to the theater. To put things in comparison, the shambolic Syrian air force is mounting far more sorties in Syria than US forces are in Iraq and Syria combined. For Syria, this is an existential conflict and it is pulling out all the stops. For the US, this is a conflict entered grudgingly with many strings attached. Gulliver is tying himself down.
ISIS is apparently mounting attacks elsewhere. These provide additional opportunities for American airpower. Outside of Mosul in particular, the US can cooperate with a reasonably competent ground force. But none of this is likely to prove decisive. ISIS has the luxury of fighting and running away with little fear of aggressive pursuit or the loss of territory (much of it desert waste anyways) from troops following in the wake of their retreat. It continues to have the initiative.
So the likely outcome is stalemate. US airpower, working with available local ground forces, can contain ISIS, and inflict some serious casualties. But that’s about it.
The battle for the Syrian Kurd town of Khobane has emerged as an opportunity to deal the Islamic State a military and political defeat. Maximizing the opportunity, however, requires what has been most grievously missing from the struggle against the terrorists and their so-called caliphate: persuasive, coherent and steadfast American leadership.
Not happening. Not going to happen.