This is Why America Forgot How to Win
The Pentagon’s lectures to Israel ignore the real lessons of the fight against ISIS.
By Daniel Greenfield
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stopped by the Reagan National Defense Forum to deliver an address titled, ‘A Time for American Leadership’. What leadership lessons did he have to offer?
“I learned a thing or two about urban warfare from my time fighting in Iraq and leading the campaign to defeat ISIS,” he told his audience. “Like Hamas, ISIS was deeply embedded in urban areas. And the international coalition against ISIS worked hard to protect civilians and create humanitarian corridors, even during the toughest battles. So the lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”
He then went on to lecture that “we will continue to press Israel to protect civilians” and” that “protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”
Gen. Austin headed Central Command from 2013 to 2016. Obama officials blamed Austin for telling Obama that ISIS was “a flash in the pan” (while Austin’s people denied he said that.) Central Command’s intelligence failures against ISIS were so bad that they resulted in an investigation into whether intelligence had been falsified to make it look like we were winning.
By the fall of 2016, after 3 years of fighting, ISIS had only lost a third of its territory in Iraq and Syria. That was in large part because the Obama administration refused to allow the military to properly hammer ISIS. Under Trump, our hands were no longer tied and we hit ISIS hard.
Despite Austin’s claims that victory against ISIS came from protecting civilians allied with the Islamic terror group, the reality was just the opposite. Fussiness over civilian casualties during the Obama administration translated neither to victory nor civilian lives saved. On Austin’s watch, airstrikes against ISIS killed civilians, but that was always inevitable.
It’s impossible to take out Islamic terrorists whose entire operating model is to fight from behind and around civilians without civilian casualties. The choice is between a long grueling war, which Obama and Austin gave us, or a short devastating campaign, which Trump gave us.
What the Obama administration refused to understand in either Iraq or Afghanistan is that the leading cause of civilian deaths are the Islamic terrorists we are fighting. During the Holocaust, Jewish groups pleaded with the FDR administration to bomb concentration camps, despite the inevitable civilian casualties, because it would have stopped the killing. The Allied campaign hit Nazi-controlled territories hard, with little regard for civilian casualties, because only ending the war quickly would stop the killing. If we had fought WWII by today’s rules, we would still be fighting it and for that matter it’s not at all impossible that we would have long since lost it.
Obama and Austin prolonged a campaign against ISIS that allowed the Islamic terror group to rape and pillage its way across the region. The choice was not between no or civilian deaths, but whether the dead civilians would be ISIS supporters or their Kurdish victims.
Trump dropped more bombs every month than the entire three years of Obama’s fitful fight against ISIS.The media and activists blamed the majority of the civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria on Trump, but that was also what ended the war and the accompanying civilian casualties.
While Obama kept the pain going to avoid civilian casualties, Trump finished the job.
Gen. Austin is pointing to his campaign against ISIS as a model for Israel. That would be a disaster for any number of reasons. Israel doesn’t have the economy or military supplies to spend four years fighting at that level. Furthermore, the Biden administration isn’t likely to support four years of air strikes and house-to-house battles across Gaza. Even after a month, there are definite warnings from D.C. that Israel needs to wrap up its fight against Hamas.
Austin and some of his people have used their campaign against ISIS in Mosul as a model for Israel. Here’s a reminder of what that model looked like and what it would mean for Israel
The Battle for Mosul against some 10,000 ISIS Jihadis by some estimates took 5-6 months and relied on over 100,000 Iraqi allied forces with estimated casualties of over 1,000. Civilian casualties were estimated at between 10,000 to 40,000 with no way to really know for sure.
The idea that the Battle of Mosul showed that “you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians” is entirely false. Iraqi forces, the vast majority of them members of a different religious group, Shiites (some members of Iran’s militias) or Kurds, were anything but gentle with Arab Sunnis. Iraqi soldiers killed whomever they liked, including women and children, and claimed they were ISIS. There’s no way to know what the truth was except that it was not a clean war.
Iraqi forces used heavy firepower in civilian areas to defeat ISIS forces on the ground. And there were no protests, not from the White House, from other Muslim countries or the mobs that howl every time Israel takes out a Hamas target in Gaza. Everyone understood that nothing else could be expected when fighting ISIS. And even the reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documenting civilian deaths were mostly cursory and lacked outrage.
Israeli generals could only have rolled their eyes about being told that Mosul should be their model. In Mosul, Iran’s Shiite militias did much of the fighting on the ground in a prolonged and brutal campaign. The decision to turn the battle over to them saved American lives in the short term, but helped solidify Iran’s grip on Iraq. The rocket attacks on American forces in Iraq since then are the consequences of the decision to recruit one terror group to go after another.
There are no models here for Israel unless it can somehow recruit a bunch of Islamic terrorists to fight Hamas while it limits itself airdropping leaflets in between desultory airstrikes.
Beyond Israel’s fight against Hamas Jihadists, the truly worrying thing is that Gen. Austin and much of the brass actually believe what they are saying. Much as they believed what they were saying in Afghanistan. Because what it really means is that military leaders have forgotten how to fight. And they never seem to have learned what wars are or how we go about winning them.
Gen. Austin’s contention that “you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians” would have come as news to the Allies in WWII, to the Russians in Chechnya and to his own tenure in Iraq His insistence on the notion of a “strategic victory” that can only be won in the hearts and minds of the enemy is the same misguided strategy that cost us so many lives in Afghanistan.
And that ended with our defeat.
“We will not win simply by killing insurgents,” Gen. McChrystal had argued, kicking off Obama’s surge in Afghanistan. “Earn the support of the people and the war is won, regardless of how many militants are killed or captured.”
In the real world, you win the war by defeating the enemy, not by winning the support of the people. Wars are not democratic elections and the battlefield isn’t a political campaign. When wars are run by politicians, the end result is a defeat that comes from never really trying.
Why don’t we win wars anymore? Listen closely to Austin, McChrystal and virtually every military head honcho in the last twenty years and the answer is obvious. We don’t set out to win wars by defeating the enemy on the battlefield, but on the battlefield of ideas. Our forces are led by a generation of politicians in uniforms who have been indoctrinated, beginning at the academy level, to think of wars as contests for the hearts and minds of enemy civilians.
If Israel adopts this strategy, it will fail and be defeated. But so will we. We’ve been fighting wars that we can afford to lose (if you can describe leaving thousands of dead and many more wounded as acceptable) but we may soon find ourselves in a war against a peer competitor.
If we go up against the People’s Republic of China, will we be trying to win their hearts and minds or to beat them? Our wars until now had a limited existential risk, but that may change. The day may come when, like Israel, our wars are not something we fight abroad, but at home. Are our military leaders ready to make the tough choices of a Sherman or a Patton, or Austin’s notion that we should always risk our soldiers and the war, rather than risk enemy civilians?
Without a military leadership that understands the purpose of war, the next time we may not lose thousands, we could lose millions. And we could lose the United States of America.