Streetwise Professor

May 2, 2015

Doing a Slow Burn

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:56 pm

I have read and re-read these remarks by Brett McGurk, “deputy special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” (counter?-that tells you all you need to know) more times than I can count, and I still can hardly believe my eyes:

 Well, you certainly hope for such a tipping point, but our plan is for a long, steady, slow-burning campaign against Daish.

I have read more military history than I should have, and I cannot recall ever reading anything like this. I keep shaking my head. The closest thing that comes to mind is the Johnson-McNamara “gradual escalation” strategy, and if that’s the best comparison, it’s very bad news.

“Slow-burning” is the antithesis of pretty much every basic military principle. I remember one quote from Reef Points from my days at Navy, from Bull Halsey: “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often.” We are doing the reverse: hitting ineffectually, hitting slowly (by McGurk’s admission) and hitting infrequently. I further remember Napoleon: “The reason I beat the Austrians is that they did not know the value of five minutes.” Speed and initiative put the enemy on his heels. “Slow-burning” gives him the opportunity to prepare an dig in and marshal resources.

And that’s exactly what ISIS is doing, especially in Mosul. It is delusional to think that the Iraqi Army will be able to take Mosul, especially the way that ISIS has burrowed itself, literally and figuratively,  into every nook and cranny of the city. The Iraqis had a helluva time taking Tikrit, which was held by a few hundred ISIS fighters. Mosul will be orders of magnitude more difficult, no matter how many excavators we blow up.

The chance to keep ISIS out of Mosul was lost last June, when ISIS was exposed on the roads and deserts around the city. But Obama stayed his hand.

“Slow-burning” also allows ISIS to slaughter at its leisure, including hundreds of Yazidi prisoners who were massacred yesterday. By the time our slow-burning is over, will there be anyone alive left to save?

ISIS is actually on the offensive in places like Baiji and Ramadi. The US military is trying to spin that this is the last gasp of a force facing defeat:

While Beiji and Ramadi in Iraq remain contested between Iraqi security forces and extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants, ISIL is experiencing setbacks, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said today.

Speaking to reporters in the Pentagon via teleconference, Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder provided a weekly update on Centcom’s operational highlights in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

In central Iraq, Iraqi security forces continue to conduct operations to secure the city of Karmah, and they have retaken territory around the Tigris River canal, Ryder said.

“We’ve seen these efforts help isolate ISIL fighters who are in the town, and this has helped choke off their lines of communication,” he said, adding that from an operational perspective, such gains help to secure ISIL approaches to Baghdad.

Iraqi Forces Hold Ramadi

There have been no significant changes from last week’s operations in Ramadi, a city in western Iraq, where Iraqi forces continue to hold onto key ground while ISIL forces try to keep territory they captured in the eastern part of the city. “We expect Ramadi to remain contested,” Ryder said.

ISIL also continues to contest the Iraqi forces’ hold on Beiji’s oil refinery, he said.

“ISIL has shown that Beiji and Ramadi are strategically important to them, and they are committing a significant amount of limited resources to secure these locations,” Ryder said.

ISIL wants to “score a win” after suffering numerous recent setbacks, most notably in Tikrit, he added. “Because of this, both cities are expected to remain contested for some time,” he said.

Sorry. Not buying it. Most other information strongly suggests that the Iraqis are hanging on by their fingernails in both places. The initiative is with ISIS, not Iraq. At best, US airpower is keeping ISIS at bay and saving the Iraqis from another massacre. That’s not defeat, but it sure as hell ain’t victory. It’s sad to see the the military spinning so pathetically in defense of a campaign that you know deeply offends their professional and patriotic sensibilities.

In other embarrassments, the United States is telling citizens in Yemen: “Good luck! You’re on your own!”

That’s not true, exactly. The State Department is setting up the equivalent of a ride sharing program. Not exactly civis romanus sum, is it?

And there’s more! Iran seized a cargo ship in one of the most strategically important waterways in the world, the Straits of Hormuz, during a period of heightened tensions in the region: indeed there is an ongoing proxy war between Iran and the Saudis in Yemen. The Iranians are using some flimsy legal pretext to justify the seizure, but we all know that Iran is sending a message.

We also know that Obama is pretending not to hear. Again the Pentagon carried his water, issuing several mealy-mouthed statements to the effect that we aren’t sure whether the Maersk ship was in international waters, and that the US is under no obligation to defend a Marshall Islands flagged ship, despite the fact that the US has treaty obligations to that nation:

The Government of the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in or relating to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. (b) This authority and responsibility includes: (1) the obligation to defend the Federated States of Micronesia and its people from attack or threats thereof as the United States and its citizens are defended;… (c) The Government of the United States confirms that it shall act in accordance with the principles of international law and the Charter of the United Nations in the exercise of this authority and responsibility

And even if the US had no treaty obligation, for centuries-and especially since WWII-it has been a stalwart defender of the freedom of navigation. Twice (in 1981 and 1986) Reagan dispatched carrier groups to the Gulf of Sidra when Khadaffy claimed that these waters were off-limits to foreign ships. When the Libyans insanely challenged the carriers, F-14s splashed several of their fighters. When the Iranians began attacking tankers in the Persian Gulf in 1987, foreign tankers were put under the US flag, and escorted by US ships. Later, the US shelled and destroyed oil platforms that the Iranians were using as command and control facilities to coordinate their attacks on tankers.

By the way, the Iranian seizure of the Maersk Tigris has to be viewed against the background of this history.

But Obama is hell-bent on doing a deal with Iran, and he will sacrifice pretty much any American policy principle and alliance to get it.

All of this has me doing a slow burn.

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  1. Re. Iran, apparently Iranian patrol boats made a failed attempt to encircle a U.S. flagged ship a few days prior, and and initially announced that the ship that they did capture had American soldiers on board. This has led to some speculation that they may have mistaken the Marshall Islands ship for a U.S. flagged vessel, and that was their intended target. That seems a little odd, and it might be more likely that they mistook the U.S. ship for the Marshall Islands vessel, but at least some people in the Government think otherwise. Either way, this is outrageous.

    Re. ISIS and the Vietnam comparison, another risk with this strategy is that it often looks like it is failing, even when if it is kind of working. The Tet Offensive was a disaster for the NVA, and the VC was effectively wiped out as a fighting force, taking years to recover. However the mere fact that they were able to mount an offensive at all was enough that a lot of people reached the conclusion that the Communists were unbeatable, despite the utter failure of their offensive, and there was no political will to continue the fight.

    Oh, and it looks like the Russians are gearing up for another offensive in Ukraine.

    Comment by JDonn — May 3, 2015 @ 3:07 am

  2. Lavrov has already accused Ukraine of shelling Donetsk. Operation “Gleiwitz incident” may already be in full swing. Russian populace is conveniently in full hysteria mode in the run-up to May 9, so Putin may be correctly figuring they would be less sensitive to the incoming thousands of body bags than they would be at any other time.

    Comment by Ivan — May 3, 2015 @ 6:14 am

  3. I have read more military history than I should have, and I cannot recall ever reading anything like this. I keep shaking my head.

    Oh, I have. Many times. Only it was always the phrase used – or one similar – by a guerrilla movement fighting a much stronger power. I fear our special envoy has forgotten which role the U.S. is supposed to be playing. Either that, or it’s an astonishing admission.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 3, 2015 @ 11:14 am

  4. @Tim-Well said. I was implicitly thinking of this being said by any serious power. It is a classic strategy of the weak-you are definitely right about that. And as you say, it’s either a startling admission of our lack of will, or a testament to our confusion. Or both.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 3, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

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