By SAMER MOSIS
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the Islamic State (ISIS, IS) widens their path of destruction across the Middle East and North Africa one question keeps arising, What should the US’s response be? Last week, in the midst of these questions, President Barrack Obama sent Congress a request for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS. Yet, discussion continues as to the real affect this will have on the fight against ISIS. The SAIS Observer sat down with Dr. Thomas Keaney, Associate Director of Strategic Studies and senior adjunct professor at SAIS, to get an expert opinion.
Thus far, the primary method of fighting ISIS in Iraq has been through a US-led air campaign. As a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, you have first experience in the capabilities and limitations of aerial-based campaigns. What do you think the primary limitations of the US-led air campaign against ISIS are presently?
Your question, I think, addresses the relationship of military force, in this case an air campaign, as a means to achieve a political end. The air campaign can have devastating effects on the ability of ISIS to mass their forces or even travel in large numbers. The conflict won’t end in the air, however, but on the ground. And its end is more than taking a city, even a capital city; it involves the establishment of some kind of civic order and effective control of the region—being able to govern in other words. One could cite as an example the Libyan air campaign of 2011, which achieved step one, the end of the Gaddafi regime, but any sort of effective governance has yet to take place.
The AUMF, if passed, will not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations. How will these limitations affect military strategy in combating ISIS?
Any AUMF passed will have such limitations, so the military strategy, mainly based on a US-led air campaign, will confront often exacting limits on what targets can be struck as well as the objectives sought. Attacking ISIS in Syria involves added complication: if ISIS is eliminated as an effective force, there is still the matter of the Syrian civil war that preceded the rise of ISIS. An effective air campaign requires intelligence, much of it from those on the ground who can identify targets. Who among those combatants in the civil war do you trust to identify targets? One answer emphasizes the need to have troops on the ground, often conflated with the notion that those troops be US troops. I don’t see US “troops” being involved in any significant way or insignificant numbers, but there will be a need for some sort of US presence to keep the air campaign focused on US objectives, not the objectives of any other faction within Syria or in the Middle East in general.
Why do you think the executive branch does not press Congress to ‘authorize war’ anymore? The wars against the Taliban, AQ, and ISIS are not officially wars, but rather AUMF. What brought on this trend? Do you think it will continue?
The trend you mention long precedes authorizations to fight the Taliban or AQ. That trend began in 1950 (the United States last declared war in 1942) when the United States, as a member of the United Nations, undertook actions to enforce UN resolutions relative to the North Korean attack—effectively declaring war on North Korea. It was the UN that “declared war,” not the Unites States. Then, as in the case of the UN coalition that fought the Gulf War in 1990-91, the Congress authorized the United States to engage in combat, but it did so through a resolution, not a formal war declaration. The Congressional Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 authorized the President to “take all necessary steps” in conducting combat operations in Vietnam and surrounding areas. The President determined the necessary steps, in effect giving him powers of commander in chief in wartime, until over six years later when Congress repealed the resolution. I don’t see any new AUMF authorizing so sweeping actions as did the 1964 authorization, but resolutions, as opposed to declarations of war, seem to be the present and future methods that the president will request and the Congress will approve (or not). The reasons are many and varied, too many and too complicated to outline here, but I think resolutions are here to stay.
Dr. Keaney is the Associate Director of Strategic Studies and senior adjunct professor at SAIS. During his military career he served as a forward air controller in Vietnam and later as a B-52 squadron commander. As a researcher/author with the Gulf War Air Power Survey of the 1991 war, he was coauthor of a book with Prof. Eliot Cohen, Revolution in Warfare?: Air Power in the Persian Gulf.