By GIL BARNDOLLAR • March 5, 2019
America’s military leaders do not like to rock the boat. Whether testifying before Congress or writing in professional journals, our modern major generals, and the colonels and majors who dream of wearing stars on their collars one day, have been largely unwilling to criticize either the strategy or the tactics of our failed post-9/11 wars. Though there have been honorable exceptions, our combat leaders mostly keep their opinions to themselves, even in retirement. So we owe thanks to our oldest ally for boasting an officer with the moral courage to put himself in the line of fire back at home.
Col. Francois-Regis Legrier, who leads the French artillery supporting Kurdish forces in Syria, recently excoriated the anti-ISIS coalition for its risk aversion and the resulting destruction of civilian areas. “Yes, the Battle of Hajin was won, at least on the ground, but by refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population,” Colonel Legrier wrote in France’s National Defense Review.
There has been much back-patting and celebration in Washington about the merits of our very light footprint in the counter-ISIS campaign. No more than 4,000 troops in Syria at any given time, achieving our aims through the largely Kurdish proxy forces we supported. U.S. casualties were minimal—just seven American servicemen have lost their lives in Syria to date. This, we are told by some experts, is the future of warfare.
The political downsides of our methods have become increasingly clear. We do not control our proxies, and they have political and military aims that may be at odds with U.S. strategic goals in the region. The Kurdish YPG in Syria, for all its fighting prowess, cannot defeat the Turkish Army that confronts it—a Turkish Army that is a NATO ally of the United States. Earlier in our haphazard Syrian intervention, different U.S. proxy forces may not have actually fought each other. But CIA-backed forces did ally with Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, an entirely predictable outcome.
Going a little further back, our proxies in South Vietnam ultimately lacked the will to win, while some of our Afghan proxies in the 1980’s ultimately became contributors to international terrorism.
What Colonel Legrier has pointed out is that we do not need to even look at these second- and third- order effects to see the downside of our method. Instead of doing the job with our own soldiers, we chose to enable our partners through massive applications of Western firepower. Precision-guided munitions can kill civilians just as easily as dumb bombs, despite defense industry marketing claims. Compare photos or videos of barrel-bombed Aleppo and smart-bombed Raqqa. Notice any similarities?
Colonel Legrier contended that a few thousand Western infantrymen could have made short work of ISIS’ final sanctuary. Repeating our infamous mistake at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, we chose not to employ our conventional troops in sustained combat. “This refusal raises a question: why have an army that we don’t dare use?” Legrier asked. This is not Madeleine Albright’s flippant taunt to Colin Powell in 1992; Colonel Legrier is a combat veteran who understands the costs of war. If the Islamic State really was and is a serious danger to the West, it should have been dealt with swiftly, decisively, and with no ambiguity about the capability and willingness of the West to destroy any legitimate jihadi target we can find.
Instead of “butcher and bolt,” we have “by, with, and through” and prolonged civilian suffering. The myth of humane warfare persists despite the reality on the ground. Low U.S. casualties mask the extent of the devastation. The Pentagon claims a little more than 1,100 Iraqi and Syrian civilian deaths from U.S. military action. Estimates by independent observers are at least five times that. Regardless, profligate use of coalition firepower during a grinding campaign spearheaded by local proxies with their own goals is a recipe for a continuing cycle of repression, grievances, revenge, and chaos. Iraq and Syria are both in the midst of proving that.
The military campaign to liberate ISIS-held territory is all but over, despite partisan political sniping in the United States. But the newly announced plan to leave 400 U.S. soldiers in Syria promises more of the same. We are pledged to “mow the grass” of extremists though small raids and airstrikes while also somehow ensuring peace between Turks and Syrian Kurds. America thus remains a party to the region’s dysfunction, while lacking the military force to influence events in any meaningful way.
Colonel Legrier’s article was quickly removed from the National Defense Review’s website, and the French Army has said he may be punished for speaking out. C’est la guerre. Would that we had a few U.S. officers willing to risk a slightly smaller pension in order to acknowledge publicly that their nation is tactically and strategically adrift.
Gil Barndollar is Military Fellow-in-Residence at CSS and Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Article originally published at Defense One.