The War on ISIS: More Than One Battle

In the Vietnam War, saving Khe Sanh seemed essential. Turned out it wasn’t.

The Wall Street Journal

October 22, 2014

On Jan. 21, 1968, North Vietnamese troops attacked the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam near the border with Laos. A 77-day siege ensued, with the U.S. pouring in ever more firepower. The U.S. would drop 100,000 tons of bombs because Gen. William Westmoreland was determined that Khe Sanh not become another defeat like Dien Bien Phu, which had effectively ended France’s colonial presence in Vietnam 14 years earlier.

And it didn’t. Eventually the siege was relieved and the attacking forces melted away, having suffered more than 5,000 fatalities (while the defenders lost about 350 men).

Today, no one except some veterans and military historians remembers Khe Sanh because in the end it had scant strategic significance: Even though the U.S. won the battle, it lost the war. Not long after having “liberated” Khe Sanh, the U.S. dismantled the base because it served little purpose.

This history is worth mentioning because of the parallels, limited and inexact to be sure, between Khe Sanh and Kobani, a Kurdish town in northern Syria. Jihadist forces of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have been besieging Kobani for weeks, and the U.S. has been ramping up efforts to prevent the town from falling. U.S. airstrikes have apparently taken a heavy toll, eliminating ISIS fighters, artillery, armored vehicles and other heavy weapons. Airstrikes have now been joined by airdrops of weapons and ammunition to the Kurdish defenders. Turkey, which had hitherto not lifted a finger to save Kobani, announced Monday that it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to traverse Turkish territory to join in defending the town.

Kobani no longer looks to be in imminent danger of falling. It is even possible that ISIS will give up the fight and pull out. If this happens, it will certainly be good news. The remaining residents of Kobani would be saved from slaughter and their relief would give a moral boost to anti-ISIS efforts. But any celebration should be muted. Winning at Kobani will be no more devastating to ISIS than was the American victory at Khe Sanh to North Vietnam.

The problem is that ISIS can readily replace the fighters it loses in Kobani, and heavy weapons are not essential to its guerrilla style of warfare. Even as ISIS is losing a little ground at Kobani, it is gaining strength elsewhere.

Its fighters are advancing in Anbar Province with little resistance. They are poised on the outskirts of Baghdad; soon they may be within mortar range of Baghdad International Airport, whose closure would be a disaster. On Monday alone, its car bombs and suicide bombers in Baghdad and Karbala claimed at least 33 lives, a day after a suicide bomber in Baghdad killed at least 28 people in a Shiite mosque. The pattern is reminiscent of the terrorist atrocities perpetrated in 2006 by al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, aimed at rallying Sunnis to the terrorists’ side by provoking a civil war with Shiites.

As in those dark days, Sunni extremism is provoking an equally extreme response from Iranian-backed Shiites. The replacement of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister with Haidar al-Abadi, an apparently less sectarian Shiite, was a small step in the right direction for which the Obama administration deserves credit. But there is little reason to think the Iranian hold over a substantial portion of the Iraqi state has been broken.

The Iraqi Parliament has approved ministers to run the two security ministries—Interior and Defense. While the Defense pick is Sunni technocrat Khalid al-Obedi, the Interior pick is far more worrisome: Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban is a member of the Badr Organization, one of the chief Iranian-backed Shiite militias that is further destabilizing Iraq with attacks on Sunni neighborhoods. The likelihood is that Mr. Ghabban will take orders from his ultimate sponsor, Gen. Qasem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force.

This means that the Interior Ministry, in charge of Iraq’s police forces, will become, if it is not already, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Shiite militias and their Iranian string-pullers. This happened in 2006 when the Iraqi police became notorious for kidnapping and torturing Sunnis. This helped bring Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war and will do so again if not checked.

The only way to counteract the Iranian capture of the Interior Ministry is to bolster the Iraqi army as an independent fighting force, but there is little sign of this occurring. Shiite sectarians have also deeply penetrated the army and the U.S. has little ability to counteract this insidious development because President Obama will not send a large number of “embedded” advisers to work alongside army units that remain more professional and less politicized.

Only 12 U.S. advisory teams have been deployed and only at the brigade level. The other 14 Iraqi brigades identified by the U.S. as “reliable partners” have no advisers at all. None of these advisers, moreover, is allowed to accompany Iraqi troops into combat, where they can be most effective. The U.S. also is not stepping in to offer direct assistance and training to the Sunnis of Anbar Province to allow them to fight back against ISIS, as they did against al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-08.

In Syria the U.S. is also doing little to oppose the Assad dictatorship, leaving it free to continue attacks on areas held by moderate militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. This, too, is feeding the radicalization of Syria and Iraq by convincing many Sunnis, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. is acquiescing to Iranian regional domination—and that ISIS is the only reliable defender that Sunnis have. That impression will be strengthened if the Obama administration reaches a deal with Iran next month that will allow Tehran to maintain its capacity to develop a nuclear weapon.

Through the limited application of air power—a mere handful of daily strikes—the U.S. may achieve tactical progress to blunt ISIS’s momentum. But Khe Sanh showed the limits of tactical military victories if they are not married to larger strategic gains—and those are elusive in Iraq and Syria today.

Available online at: http://online.wsj.com/articles/max-boot-the-war-on-isis-more-than-one-battle-1414018468