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Bing West: Pentagon’s ISIS Strategy a ‘Mess’

On June 5, at a Pentagon press conference, Lieutenant General John W. Hesterman III, Combined Forces Air Component Commander, vigorously championed both the success of the bombing in Iraq and Syria, and the Defense Department’s method for controlling air strikes. The briefing illustrated how, as in Vietnam, the military becomes politicized and loses focus. A few observations:
Attrition is not a strategy. The general began by saying that bombing was “killing 1000 [ISIS] fighters a month.” These deaths, he asserted, have “a profound effect upon the enemy.”
Stop right there. Bombing is not a strategy. It is weapon, like a rifle. If attrition were our strategy, then the measure is the number of enemy killed as compared to the total number of fighters plus replacements. For years in Vietnam the CIA and the military claimed that bombing was having a severe effect and that North Vietnamese morale under B-52 strikes was at rock bottom. Maybe so, but North Vietnam eventually conquered South Vietnam.
– Pentagon officials shouldn’t be political mouthpieces. It was disappointing that the general asserted, “air power is giving coalition nations the time to execute the effort to finish Daesh. . . . There’ll be tactical setbacks . . . [but] we are fully committed to a strategic defeat of the Daesh terrorists.”
“Fully committed” is a political pledge only the commander-in-chief can make. And President Obama has promised we will not be fully committed. Generals must refrain from being thrust out in front to defend political decisions.
– Our mission in Iraq and Syria is incoherent. No can define the American military mission, because it has no clearly articulated political strategy or end state. Yesterday, retired General McChrystal criticized Hesterman’s Air Force briefing. In his book, he wrote, ”I directed all units cease reporting . . . insurgents killed. . . . I wanted to take away any incentives that might drive commanders and their men to see killing insurgents as the primary goal.”
Today, killing is being trotted out as the primary measure of American effectiveness. Who speaks for American military objectives and means? Is it retired General McChrystal, or retired General John Allen, who is the President’s Special Emissary for Iraq and Syria, or is it the general at CENTCOM in charge of the region, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or the Secretary of Defense?
– Air-strike control is much too centralized. I called in strikes in 1966 on the ground in I Corps. No pilot ever hesitated or questioned me. Over the course of dozens of embeds since 2003 in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been on the battlefield with our air controllers and observed the process firsthand. The difference in air-strike control is huge. In his briefing, Hesterman declined to mention how centralized and difficult it is for a JTAC (Joint Tactical Air Controller) or a pilot. Today, a pilot is held legally responsible for satisfying himself that the controller on the ground has made the correct call. The videotape of every bombing is reviewed back at base, often by a lawyer. The pilot shares the responsibility for dropping a bomb, regardless of what the man on the ground tells him.


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