ISIS and the moral level of warfare

With all the atrocities that ISIS has visited on the people living in the territories it’s overrun in recent months, the humanitarian basis for military intervention in Iraq and Syria looks clear cut. What’s much less clear is whether the West’s strategy of airstrikes has any prospect of achieving its aims – especially given the risk that it will end up being actively counterproductive.

Start with the West’s stated objectives, listed by President Obama on 7 September on Meet the Press as (i) blunting ISIS’s momentum, (ii) degrading its capabilities, (iii) shrinking the territory it controls, and (iv) ultimately defeating them. What are the prospects for airstrikes achieving these aims? Here’s counter-insurgency writer William Lind:

Physically, the president’s strategy relies on air power. The reasons air power alone will fail, as it always has, are many. The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids. They will lose any specialized military equipment, but they don’t depend on that.

For an air campaign to be effective, it must act in cooperation with competent ground forces. In Kurdistan, those exist. They do not exist elsewhere in Iraq, as the disintegration of the Iraqi army demonstrated. Shiite militias will fight, but are usually poorly trained and bring moral baggage, as noted below. There could be an effective ground force working with our air power in Syria, in the form of the Syrian Arny of President Bashar al Assad and its highly competent ally, Hezbollah, but President Obama has ruled that out for ideological reasons. The “moderate Syrian opposition” he wants to rely on consists of twelve men living outside Syria in luxury hotels. It is a chimera.

But while it’s hard to see how the West’s airstrikes strategy will achieve its stated aims, it’s much easier to see how it could work to ISIS’s own advantage. As Lind continues later in the same article (emphasis added),

By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.

This concept of the moral level of warfare – first described by US military theorist John Boyd – is crucially important, and for hard-edged military reasons. As Lind put it in another piece back in 2003 (again, emphasis added):

To the traditional levels of war—tactical, operational, and strategic—Boyd added three new ones: physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical, operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other.

Our armed forces focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies’ successes on the strategic and moral levels, and we lose.

I’m a passionate supporter of the principle of humanitarian intervention. Back when I was a special adviser at the UK’s Department for International Development, I pushed as hard as I could for the UK to come out in support of formal UN recognition of the Responsibility to Protect.

But knowing why we should intervene in a conflict is not enough. We also need to know what we propose to do and how that will achieve the desired results. (It’s not as if there’s any shortage of examples of how badly things can go wrong when our intervention plan doesn’t extend much beyond “something must be done”.)

So when someone asks me “well, what would you do?”, I’d have to say: Nothing, militarily, at this stage. Not because I don’t see the humanitarian basis for intervention, but because I struggle to see military options that have a realistic chance of creating the effects we say we want to see – whereas I can easily see how they might make things very much worse, by winning physical battles but losing the moral level of the war.

By contrast, if airstrikes will just bolster ISIS’s legitimacy, its history and its recent actions give good reason to suppose that it’s perfectly capable of destroying its own legitimacy. Remember, after all, that ISIS is to a large extent the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – a group that counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen uses as a case study of a group that was ineffective at retaining control over its populations. As he writes in his book Out of the Mountains,

AQI is an excellent example of the brittleness that can result from too narrow a spectrum of capabilities. AQI established a terrifyingly effective ascendancy over the Sunni population, but because this dominance was based entirely on fear and coercion, it had no resilience. As soon as the [US] surge created a minimal assurance for people that they would survive the attempt to turn against AQI, and as soon as coalition forces in Anbar demonstrated that they could kill or capture members of AQI cells, the myth of AQI’s invincibility was shattered and the people turned on AQI in a flash and swept it away. And because the terrorist group had little to offer but fear and intimidation, it had no way to counteract or bounce back from its loss of control.

ISIS appears set to make similar mistakes this time around – look, for example, at reactions (like this) from even ultra-conservative Salafist imams to its threat to kill British hostage Alan Henning. But the West looks set to make a lot of the same mistakes as it did during the Iraq war, too.

I’d like to think that our actions on the ground were based on a clear theory of influence, above all recognition of the need to win legitimacy among Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria. But it’s hard to have much confidence in that given how little Western governments did about either repeated chemical warfare attacks by the Assad regime in Syria – a situation where airstrikes might actually have been able to achieve something – or the venality and vicious sectarianism of the Shiite regime in Baghdad.

Similarly, I’d like to think that smart minds in the Home Office are working on a sophisticated influencing strategy to engage with British kids who’ve seen YouTubes of horrific atrocities against their fellow Sunnis and want to do something about it. Again, though, it’s hard to be hopeful of that while David Cameron is strutting around characterising those kids as “psychopathic terrorists who are trying to kill us”.

Back in 2008, David Steven and I wrote an essay entitled Towards a theory of influence for 21st century foreign policy, in which we quoted Osama bin Laden’s mischievous assertion that “it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’ own goal”. Here’s hoping the West plays a smarter – and subtler – game this time around.