President Obama did not invent the war from above, using drones and warplanes against a guerrilla force, but he has a clear preference for airborne counterinsurgency. He has loosed drones or airstrikes in some seven countries, regardless of whether the United States was on a war footing with them, and his use of drones dwarfs that of George W. Bush. Obama deployed the US Air Force extensively against the Taliban in Afghanistan, even while trying to build up the Afghanistan National Army. After the fall of Mosul in the summer of 2014, he went back into Iraq with drones, fighter jets, and a plan to rebuild the Iraqi Army. Other great powers have clearly been watching and learning, and Vladimir Putin’s Syria intervention is arguably a Russian adaptation of the Obama Doctrine of counterinsurgency.
Putin’s Syria campaign has exactly the same shape as Obama’s preferred methods. The Russians have expanded a military airbase near Latakia to allow provision of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army with more tanks and heavy artillery, brought in by huge military transport planes. Russian trainers and advisers are attempting to up the game of the SAA, now shrunk by defections and fatigue to only 90,000 troops from its former strength of some 300,000. The Russian air force is hitting arms depots and armed convoys of Syrian insurgents. It is giving close air support to the troops of the SAA and its Hezbollah allies in the region just north of the provincial Sunni city of Hama and in Idlib Province.
Idlib has fallen completely into the hands of the Army of Conquest and its allies. This coalition groups Al Qaeda (the Support Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra) with the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) and other small, fundamentalist Salafi guerrilla bands. The fall of Idlib threatens the port of Latakia just to its west, an Alawite Shiite population center, which is a major power base for Assad’s Baath regime. Latakia in the northwest is essential for supplying the southern capital, Damascus. If the guerrillas in Idlib take Latakia, an Al Qaeda–led group would for the first time fully control a major Mediterranean port, with dire implications for Europe.
The Support Front reports directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the United States. If it takes Latakia, it would then be in a position to cut Damascus off before sweeping into the capital and killing the Assad regime. Further, it would certainly ethnically cleanse the some 2 million Alawites of the area, provoking another wave of refugees headed toward Europe. Washington’s complaints about the Russians focusing on this threat rather than on Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in the country’s east therefore misses the whole point.
Although it is true that there are small remnants of the Free Syrian Army, as well, north of Hama and in Idlib, they are either local and relatively unimportant or have been drawn into tactical alliances with Al Qaeda. The refusal of the Freemen of Syria and other groups to break with Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda as they broke with Daesh has denied them effective Western support and hurt their cause. Putin’s military is relentlessly targeting all the insurgents who threaten regime control over key cities such as Latakia and Hama, which lie along the trunk road that is the capital’s lifeline, and on either side of which most Syrians live. In the end, though, Russia’s hope of restoring the authority of the Assad regime, which is guilty of mass torture and mass murder, seems forlorn.
The Obama Doctrine of counterinsurgency is the exact opposite of the theory put forward by Gen. David Petraeus, which helps explain the latter’s current impatience with administration policy. Petraeus argued that an insurgency is primarily a political phenomenon, which works by coercing and terrorizing the local population. For that reason, it is not enough for a military to simply kill insurgents or to take territory away from them. Locals will remain afraid of the insurgents lurking just over in the next valley. When the army deploys its men elsewhere, the guerrillas will simply come back.
Rather, Petraeus argued that the army must take the territory, clear it thoroughly of insurgents, hold it for a good long while, and during that time build (or bring in from the capital) local governing and policing capacity. The latter task might involve convincing insurgents to switch sides, giving them a salary and creating a pro-government militia out of them, as the US military did with Sunni insurgents in Iraq, turning them against Al Qaeda there.
Although Petraeus and his circle are convinced that this approach worked in Baghdad in 2007 to tamp down the Sunni-Shiite civil war and allow a soft landing for the US occupation of Iraq, they are misinterpreting what happened. Petraeus’s American forces took Sunni neighborhoods, cleared them of Al Qaeda, and disarmed the young men. Once the Sunnis were disarmed, Shiite militiamen went into their neighborhoods and alleyways at night and ethnically cleansed them, killing former guerrillas as an object lesson to their families and threatening the latter with a similar fate if they did not decamp. Baghdad went from being perhaps 45 percent Sunni to 15 percent. As a result, the civil war and killing petered out, but it wasn’t because of successful counterinsurgency.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis of Baghdad created waves of refugees and enormous resentment. Admittedly, the prime minister stabbed Petraeus in the back by refusing to hire on most of the some 100,000 Sunni “Sons of Iraq” who had joined the American side. Without arms or a government position, many of them were assassinated by their Al Qaeda foes. Maliki actually prosecuted some of them for guerrilla activities undertaken prior to their turnabout. Al Qaeda revived and morphed into Daesh.
While Obama was inveigled into letting Petraeus have his head in Afghanistan, the president appears to have been unimpressed with the results of the general’s grand experiment. The counterinsurgency campaign was taken over by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former head of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq. The attempt to take, clear, hold, and build had some local successes. The Taliban, however, were so little defeated that they have influence in entire provinces and recently took, at least for a time, the major northern provincial capital of Kunduz. Both McChrystal and Petraeus lost their positions, the former because of unwise remarks about administration officials in a Rolling Stone interview, the latter because he shared classified information with his biographer and lover while head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Obama prefers aerial interventions to the infantry-intensive Petraeus approach. His deployment of drones has, however, raised a host of thorny legal issues, including the legitimacy of executing US citizens (and others) abroad with no due process.
Despite his initial reluctance to get involved, Obama deployed his air-war techniques extensively in Libya. The US Air Force used precision targeting to take out dictator Muammar Gadhafi’s anti-aircraft batteries, allowing NATO and its Arab League allies freedom of the Libyan skies. Most of the aerial interventions hit arms depots or tank and SCUD convoys out in the desert. Obama and his allies essentially leveled the playing field for Libyan insurgents fighting with light arms against tank brigades. Despite a black legend to the contrary, civilian deaths from the bombings were light, since NATO avoided operating near cities, with the exception of strikes on Gadhafi’s Tripoli headquarters. Human Rights Watch identified a few dozen cases of civilian deaths.
One difficulty with the Obama Doctrine can clearly be seen in Libya, which is that mere air support to one side in a revolution or civil war does nothing to build institutions in the aftermath. The very militias supported by NATO from the air declined to disarm after the war and then went to war with one another, leaving roughly 3,000 dead last year and the country in disarray.
Obama began proposing greater use of drones even while running for president in 2007-08, and once in office they were his favorite tool of counterinsurgency. He deployed them in the tribal belt of northwest Pakistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), against the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, who fled there from Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has a fragile purchase on governance in these rugged tribal areas, and locals were often willing to rent out rooms or houses to those they saw as holy warriors. Memories of the half-century of harsh British rule in what is now northwestern Pakistan had left the population congenitally anti-imperialist, and they stridently opposed the US military occupation of their cousins across the border in Afghanistan.
Ironically, from June 2014 the Pakistani government itself finally took on the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani group of insurgents in FATA from the air, launching a major and extended bombing campaign, Zarb-i Azb (“Cutting Strike”). The Obama Doctrine had spread to Islamabad.
Obama also used drones and airstrikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in south Yemen. This campaign was authorized behind the scenes by then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In 2012 the Yemeni army, with US air support, forced AQAP into a strategic retreat from Abyan Province, where it had taken substantial territory. AQAP is the most active of the Al Qaeda affiliates in carrying out terrorist strikes in the West, including the 2009 underwear bomber attempt on an airliner over Detroit and possibly the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015.
When Houthi rebels from the Shiite Zaidi sect took over much of Yemen begininng in September of 2014, Saudi Arabia became alarmed that they were cat’s paws of Iran (they aren’t). The Gulf Cooperation Council of oil monarchies, along with allies Morocco and Jordan, began an intensive bombing campaign targeting Houthi-held cities this past spring, which still continues. The civil war in Yemen has allowed a resurgence of Al Qaeda in the south of the country, about which Riyadh and its allies seem far less concerned than they are about the Shiite Houthis. Although small contingents of troops from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have landed at the southern port of Aden, the major campaign has been aerial, leaving Yemen’s urban areas and infrastructure a shambles and killing thousands. The Saudi-led air war conforms to the Obama Doctrine, as well, and is being given US logistical support.
When Mosul, Iraq, fell to Daesh in the summer of 2014, Obama responded by returning a small contingent of US trainers to Iraq and reestablishing a military command in Baghdad. Aside from the charge of rebuilding the collapsed Iraqi army, however, its main mission appears to be to launch drone and jet attacks on Daesh convoys and other targets, and to provide aerial bombing support to Iraqi land operations. American air power was consequential in saving the Shiite Turkmen city of Amerli from Daesh in 2014, and in allowing a motley crew of an Iraqi army brigade, 15,000 Shiite militiamen, and some Iranian special forces to take the Sunni city of Tikrit in April. This operation defied the Petraeus doctrine, since local Sunnis were not recruited to take the lead, and the resulting victory looks like a hard-line Shiite occupation of a Sunni city (many of whose inhabitants have fled the resulting rubble).
The air campaign against Daesh spread to Syria, where its one success was in keeping the minions of the caliph-beheader from taking the Syrian-Kurdish population center of Kobane. Yet when Obama reached out to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asking that Ankara join in the bombardment of Daesh this summer, Erdogan took advantage of the invitation to instead concentrate his airstrikes on Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The Obama Doctrine of counterinsurgency was adopted by Ankara when Erdogan decided to end the peace process with the PKK Kurds and instead to seek ethnic polarization of Turkey in the hope that it would help his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the snap November 1 elections, called after a pro-Kurdish party did well enough to block the AKP from gaining an absolute majority in the June 7 polls.
The spread of the Obama Doctrine of counterinsurgency to the air forces of Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia signals a new and dangerous phase of contemporary warfare. What might otherwise remain local conflicts and insurgencies are now attracting large-scale interventions from the air by regional powers. The temptation is great in part because the cost of aerial bombardment is relatively low, and does not provoke the same reaction in the public of the metropole as do troop deaths. (Moscow’s elites remember well the protests by mothers of slain veterans in the Afghanistan war of the 1980s.)
Nor are these twenty-first-century drone and air wars notably successful in defeating insurgencies or bringing order. Indeed, it may be that the dependence on anti-insurgent guerrillas by the great air powers is itself destabilizing, since the latter often decline to disarm after the main conflict is over. Or, as with Turkey, the value of a peace process with an insurgent group may be diminished in the eyes of ruling groups, since it is easy enough to simply take them on from the air. Bombed-out infrastructure is difficult and costly to rebuild, and countries like Iraq still have electricity shortages. Yemen may not recover for decades from the looming water, electricity, and food shortages created by the Saudi-led bombing. Obama has argued that drone and air wars are better than Bush-style infantry and armor interventions. This assertion is no doubt true, but poses a false dilemma, since some situations call for neither. Air war and drones as counterinsurgency clearly pose dangers of their own, with substantial populations in our world now living in permanent fear of the sky.