Many people who have never read a word of military history or strategy will have come across the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that ‘war is politics (policy) by other means.’ If wars are fought in pursuit of political goals, then it follows that governments will know what these goals are, and develop appropriate military strategies to achieve them.
The U.S. Department of Defense currently defines strategy of ‘ a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronised and integrated fashion to achieve, theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.‘ This is what the Lincoln administration eventually managed to do in the American Civil War, and what successive American administrations failed to do in Vietnam.
Such notions have been conspicuously absent from the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and its various offshoots. Some critics of the GWOT pointed out that the elimination of global terrorism was a goal that was impossible to achieve, and was certainly not achievable through war.
Others criticized the war in Iraq as a distraction from this central goal. But these criticisms missed the point. In our new era of permanent war, war is not a means to a single end; it is an end in itself, or rather an ongoing process that can ‘sweep up’ – as Donald Rumsfeld put it – many different aims and rationales as it goes along.
This was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and it has also been the case in Syria.. Ever since the summer of 2011, the US, France and Britain – with the support of Turkey and their Gulf allies – have been looking for reasons to bomb Syria – or rather to bomb something in Syria. Initially the reasons were ostensibly humanitarian; to protect civilians from the Assad regime and stop a dictator from repressing a democratic uprising and attacking ‘his own people.’
In the last two years, the debate about bombing has shifted to national security, as Daesh/ISIS has now taken the place of al Qaeda as an existential enemy and a threat to the West’s safety and security.
These debates always begin from a position of absolute military superiority, which makes it possible for a handful of states to look down at any part of the world through a bomb sight and consider whether or not to open fire. Such debates invariably take it for granted that bombing is a necessary solution for whatever particular threat or problem that presents itself, or at least that bombing is better than doing nothing. Often the debate about whether to bomb or not to bomb is infused with a note of desperate hopefulness; just drop enough bombs for long enough and something will turn up – preferably without the need to put ‘boots on the ground’.
These debates generally pay little attention Clausewitz or conventional notions of military strategy. On the contrary, strategy is often entirely absent from bombing campaigns whose aims are often vague and poorly-defined, and lack any serious attempt to weigh up whether these goals are achievable.
What will happen if ISIS fighters melt into the civilian population of the cities that are being bombed? Should we continue to bomb them? Will bombing campaigns actually increase the numbers of ISIS recruits by making them look like victims? To what extent does bombing impede or increase the possibilities of a political solution to the Syrian war and the reconstruction of Syria and Iraq?
Even to ask some of these questions, as Jeremy Corbyn tried to do last week, and you are likely to be called a Stalinist, a useless peacenik, an appeaser or a crypto-fascist apologist for Assad, or a naive fool who doesn’t understand how evil ISIS is. Since the Paris attacks this chorus has reached a crescendo of unanimity, rage and hysteria. Some of this is understandable, given what happened, but some of its loudest voices are clearly seizing on the opportunity the attacks have provided.
David Cameron, for instance, has been desperate to bomb Syria for a long time, regardless of the consequences or the target, and so is a significant section of the British political establishment. As in France, the government appears to take it for granted that we are ‘ at war’ and that we can only prevent further attacks by bombing, yet no one seems to know whether ‘bombing Raqqa’ will make us safer, or whether it will make ISIS weaker or stronger.
The only member of the ‘grand coalition’ against ISIS which appears to see bombing in strategic terms is Russia. Russia’s bombing campaign is clearly intended to prop up Assad and enable his army to reclaim some of its lost territories. Whether this campaign is intended to strengthen the Syrian government’s position in the event of a ceasefire, or simply make it impossible for Assad’s external enemies to attack the government directly without also attacking Russia, there is evidence of an actual strategy behind it.
The Russian bombing campaign is also being carried out in conjunction with the the Syrian Arab Army, which means that there are ‘boots on the ground’ – the essential corollary of any successful tactical bombing offensive.
To point this out doesn’t mean that what Russia is doing is good. What Syria needs now is not bombs, but a return to politics. It needs less foreign military intervention and more international attempts to bring about a ceasefire and a new political arrangement in which Daesh can have no place.
Personally, I have no problem with the notion that Daesh must be militarily – and politically – defeated, but that is primarily a task for Syrians and Iraqis, and I have no doubt that they can do it – when they have governments they want to fight for. But I have yet to hear any advocate of bombing Syria – whether these calls demand the bombing of Assad or the bombing of Daesh – explain how an escalation of bombing can contribute to this outcome.
In this country, neither the government nor the Labour rightwingers who have used the Paris attacks to bludgeon Corbyn, have defined the strategic goals of a bombing campaign, or attempted to consider whether bombing would create more destruction or less. .
Tactical bombing, as opposed to strategic bombing, requires infantry forces on the ground, yet neither this government nor any other seems to know who these soldiers would be. Certainly not their own, nor Assad’s, nor even the Kurds, who the US is now backing away from under pressure from its Turkish ally.
Instead the Paris attacks are being used to terrify the public into ‘bombing Syria’ as part of an anti-ISIS alliance that includes some of the countries that have directly or indirectly supported ISIS. Last year NBC News reported that the bulk of funding for ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusrah front came from private donors or ‘angel investors’ in the Gulf countries, particularly from Qatar, which is now nominally part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
According to a report compiled by Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights, Turkey has provided direct and indirect support to ISIS, even though ISIS has carried out suicide attacks within Turkish borders. This support includes military training to ISIS fighters and weapons transfers under the guise of humanitarian aid; turning a blind eye to the movement of ISIS fighters between Turkey and Syria; refusing to support Syrian Kurdish fighters who have successfully defended themselves against ISIS and driven it back from key areas; and providing medical treatment to ISIS fighters in Turkish hospitals
No one will be surprised that Saudi Arabia may also have been complicit in the rise of ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. Ideologically, there is almost nothing to distinguish the Saudi leadership from the ‘caliphate’ it is supposedly fighting.
Yet these countries are part of the great coalition that the British political elite wants to join, in yet another pathetic attempt to punch above its weight and fight yet another war that it doesn’t know how to win, and with no apparent idea of what victory would actually look like.
All of which suggests once again, that in the twenty-first century war is no longer politics pursued by other means, or the prudent deployment of ‘instruments of national power’. Instead war has become the antithesis of politics, and a permanent necessity of powerful states that don’t seem to know or care what they are bombing or why, as long as they are bombing someone.