George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, in Bosnia, and Afghanistan and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders. Howard Coombs is a professor of military history and war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. The opinions expressed are their own.
As bombs and missiles have begun to drop on Islamic State strongholds in northern Syria, virtually every military expert has warned that the air campaign will be measured in months, if not years, and that a ground campaign must certainly follow. U.S. President Barack Obama said as much in his address announcing the commencement of the campaign against IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL).
The Obama plan – it cannot be considered a strategy yet, as significant pieces are missing – was formed more from domestic political realities and their constraints rather than what is necessary to defeat IS. This is in part why there are two separate though complementary missions: to destroy IS in Iraq and to degrade it in Syria.
The destruction of Islamic State cannot be done by air power alone, and there are some questions of how much of it can be degraded by air strikes.
Regrettably, in this context air power can be likened to trying to swat a pesky fly with a hammer – for the most part it is not efficient; however, when one finally hits a fly there is a very decisive result. But given the number of flies and their geographic spread (an area the size of the United Kingdom), this can be a wearisome and lengthy process.
Based on how many sorties were flown over Libya in 2011, we can expect the air campaign to last between six months and well over a year. The Libyan campaign itself took over seven months to defeat Moammar Gadhafi's forces, and that was with a proxy ground force provided by the National Transition Council. There is no such ground force in Syria or even in Iraq and so we are once again facing a long war.
Above all, it is the duration of our engagements overseas, the years in Iraq and Afghanistan without satisfactory conclusions, and the billions that were spent, that have soured western publics to any sort of overseas military engagements, especially those which feature the commitment of ground forces.
For the moment, the threat that the IS demonstrates with its beheadings, crucifixions and its elimination of non-adherents has galvanized nations and people to act notwithstanding their visceral reluctance to doing so. People understand that IS, wrapped in a cocoon of quasi-statehood, represents a danger if left untouched.
In response to this threat, a coalition that includes Arab states was formed to launch air strikes. This puts an end to the constant question asked within the West of "why is it always only us" intervening in this area. The participation of regional Sunni states is helping defy the narrative that it is the West against Islam.
However, military action is not inexpensive. The initial estimates from the United States are that this will cost between $7-million and $10-million a day, and so a campaign of a year's duration will easily cost $3.6-billion, and likely much more. These figures do not include what it will cost Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and other contributing nations.
Unlike national conflicts such as the Second World War, where defence spending supported national mobilization and increased hiring, modern wars do not require or produce the same economic expansion and, indeed, monies spent on long wars could be directed for more productive uses.
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, in his famous "cross of iron" speech, said: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
Beyond fiscal cost, there is a further societal cost to consider at home.
In the 19th century, General Robert E. Lee opined that warfare should be fierce lest we grow too fond of it. A century later, in 2004, the historian Niall Ferguson was struck by the festive atmosphere in Las Vegas while the U.S. Army was slogging it out in Iraq – observing the separation between the country's citizens and its armies at war.
We are faced with the probability that very antiseptic, high-tech replays of missile strikes, mesmerizing us with their precision, will have no greater impact on us and become part of our daily fare of news, in a similar fashion to the day's box scores and traffic reports.
It is Orwellian in its imagery, where a society is in perpetual war but disengaged from it. Along with that separation is the inescapable reality that prolonged war produces a drain on the economy and the national spirit. The longer that conflict endures and unless success or progress can be clearly seen, there is a reduction in public support.
This is not an argument to avoid going to war against IS; in fact, it is quite the opposite.
It is an argument to fight it with all means available at national disposal and end it as decisively and quickly as possible, even if that requires land forces ("boots on the ground") from coalition contributors.
The quicker Islamic State can be decisively degraded, if not destroyed, the better. This requires a punishing air campaign coupled with a ground force follow-up. Instead of one hammer employ many and end this military intervention quickly.
The air campaign, however, appears to be under-resourced compared to what established the winning military conditions in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, for example. It appears as if the coalition is hoping that precision strikes from a modest fighter force will replace the persistent coverage that only mass can provide. While an air campaign answers the public demand for action, it cannot fully succeed on its own. That is exactly what coalition leaders must openly discuss and confront.
The Obama plan recognizes the need for a ground campaign. It is short on detail as to what the ground force options are – possibly the Iraqi Army, possibly the Kurdish Peshmerga, possibly a future trained Free Syrian Army, or possibly a regional coalition force. This is what makes this only a plan at the moment and not a strategy.
The increasingly conventional-warfare nature of the IS enemy, the relatively straightforward nature of the terrain and, importantly, a long, secure border with NATO member Turkey mean that a ground campaign could be conducted with lighting speed and set regional conditions for future security.
In the 1991, Gulf War the air campaign lasted five weeks, and the ground operation liberating Kuwait was completed in 100 hours. The point is that it is possible to achieve success with aims limited to the destruction of IS, and not a creeping mission to establish government or re-establish civil society by military means.
The end of conflict in the 1991 Gulf War is also instructive, as there was no "complicated" exit strategy. When Kuwait was liberated, the troops came home. Limited objectives, clear goals and a short war are the lessons to be drawn.
Two divisions of a well-led modern mechanised force, preferably U.S.-led, that would not exceed 50,000 soldiers, should have no difficulty advancing north on a Baghdad-Mosul axis, then swinging west driving to Lake al-Assad as its limit of exploitation. The M4 highway which parallels the Turkish border would be its central axis.
Its left boundary, once in Syria, would be the Euphrates River – a natural demarcation line, north of which is exclusively the IS domain. The Turks, whose border runs across the entire line of advance, would be enjoined to provide secure basing for the logistics effort, and holding attacks along the length of those borders.
That sweep would provide Turkey the buffer zone that it has long argued for; the Turks can be asked to man it under a United Nations mandate – but only if they assist. This has the secondary effect of providing a secure future enclave for the Free Syrian Army and keeping the displaced refugees from the Syrian conflict within its borders, facilitating humanitarian aid delivery.
But that alone is not enough and international pressure must be maintained for the creation of inclusive governments in the region. Without the sharing of real power in Baghdad, the Sunnis will have every reason to distrust both the current regime and the United States. In Syria, the faster IS is destroyed, the less Mr. Assad will benefit and the Free Syrian Army might have a chance to concentrate instead of fighting a two-front war – one against Assad, another against IS.
The roots of IS were spawned in the suppression and its subsequent marginalization of Iraq's Sunni population soon after the Iraq invasion. But the most problematic area has been Syria, where a long list of missed opportunities to create a moderate opposition to Mr. Assad with Western support quickly became overrun and divided by fundamentalists.
Between those two tinder boxes, the IS was born. To simply bomb IS over the course of a year without becoming diplomatically engaged in resolving the baseline issue of Sunni marginalization in Iraq and Syria will only create another IS down the road, and all our efforts will have been for naught.
To avoid the results experienced by the West over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, this conflict must be informed by that decade's hard lessons – the most obvious being that "long wars with unclear purpose are not good." Use decisive military force, including land power, now, to bring IS to an end and avoid a prolonged conflict and exponentially more human suffering.