Streetwise Professor

October 22, 2014

A Lack of Strategy Makes Kobane Strategic For the US

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

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.

Austin Bay’s verdict is about right:

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.

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  1. This is surely a classic outcome of Management By Procrastination.

    If you procrastinate for long enough, all your options disappear. So in the end you have to do whatever’s left without ever having to judge between choices or make a decision.

    In this case, to do whatever’s left means you bomb Kobane.

    Comment by Green as Grass — October 23, 2014 @ 9:00 am

  2. @Green as Grass: that’s a truly brilliant description of the situation. I am going to steal it and use it (while giving proper accreditation to you, of course).

    Comment by Blackshoe — October 23, 2014 @ 11:16 am

  3. @Green as Grass: that’s a truly brilliant description of the situation. I am going to steal it and use it (while giving proper accreditation to you, of course).

    Comment by Blackshoe — October 23, 2014 @ 11:16 am

  4. @Green & @Blackshoe. Definitely spot on. There is also an element of passive-aggression here. Obama does not want to be involved in any way whatsoever, but feels compelled to do something for political reasons. The minimalism and procrastination are classic ways that a passive-aggressive acts when forced to.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 23, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

  5. While I believe that these analyses are correct, one thing about this may not be recognized.

    To really lead in this battle Obama has to either admit he was wrong to begin with, or develop some rationalization that allows him to take action without admitting he was wrong. I am not talking about to the public, but to himself. This is a person with personality disorders at least on the level of Nixon, with no where near his intelligence or experience, and without Nixon’s occasional extraordinary ability to personally extend himself. (Could you imagine Obama going to a Tea party rally as Nixon who personally went to greet (and wake up) some of the protestors in Washington?)

    Nixon really did come from hunger; only Clinton among current president’s had the same modest background. Obama, a “minority” has lived a life of real but unrecognized privilege. He has been sheltered from his own mistakes and we are paying the price of the warped paradigm this upbringing created.

    Comment by Sotos — October 23, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

  6. Anecdata alert. I almost never watch TV and likewise rarely listen to radio. I get my news from print media and online. It is thus only in the last few months that I have ever actually heard Obama speak. In the sense of hearing his voice.

    He sounds magnificent. He has a fabulous, fabulous speaking voice – measured, sonorous, mellifluous. Presidential, even.

    This has to be why he got elected. He could recite the lyrics to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo song out of Disney’s Cinderella (,d.b2U) and make it sound profound and percipient. For all I know, the times I’ve heard him, that’s exactly what he was saying.

    I am not wholly surprised he mistakes himself for a statesman.

    Comment by Green as Grass — October 24, 2014 @ 4:25 am

  7. @Green-I too get my news from online/print pretty much exclusively. I really can’t stand to listen to any politician, in particular. You are right re Obama-the sonorous voice concealed the vacuity of his words, and the fact that his mind is banal and ideologically blinkered.

    His overweening self-regard-narcissism, in fact-is staggering. I am in particular struck by the fact that he has twice-with regards to Iraq and Syria-overruled the unanimous recommendation of the defense and diplomatic establishments (who seldom agree on anything!), this despite him having zero-zero-experience in these matters. A guy whose experience was bounded by Chicago politics and community organizing deemed himself a statesman.

    Sadly, this in occurred in part because those hypnotized by his voice provided ample narcissistic supply: the media is particularly culpable here.

    And we are now paying the price.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 24, 2014 @ 8:24 am

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