WASHINGTON, September 11, 2014 – On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama laid out his strategy for dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State:
“First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.”
Back in 2002, President George W. Bush employed a similar strategy against Osama bin Laden and his Afghan al-Qaeda army in what became known as the battle of Tora Bora.
“In the fight for Tora Bora, corrupt local militias did not live up to promises to seal off the [Afghan] mountain redoubt, and some colluded in the escape of fleeing al-Qaeda fighters,” wrote Washington Post correspondents Barton Gellman and Thomas E. Ricks, “[Gen. Tommy] Franks did not perceive the setbacks soon enough, some officials said, because he ran the war from Tampa [U.S. Central Command in Florida] with no commander on the scene above the rank of lieutenant colonel.”
America’s main contribution to the battle was air power. The most potent weapon deployed was the BLU-82B, or “Daisy Cutter.” Weighing 12,600 pounds, measuring 17 feet long, and 5 feet in diameter, the bomb’s size required that it be dropped from a C-130 cargo plane.
When it’s detonator ignited the ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder, and polystyrene chemical explosive, the blast destroyed everything within a radius of 1,000 feet. It’s said the weapon has a fiery yield six times greater than the improvised explosive device that brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
U.S. airstrikes did not stop Osama bin Laden from escaping al-Qaeda’s Afghan mountaintop caves and crossing into the wilds of Pakistan’s autonomous region. In the end, it was Seal Team Six boots-on-the-ground, and several inexpensive and well-placed rounds, which brought bin Laden’s twisted existence to an abrupt end.
The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof notes that like Bush’s tenuous alliance with local Afghan militias, Obama’s plan to supply weapons to Syrian rebels poses “a danger that more arms will lead not to the destruction of ISIS but to the creation of another Somalia.”
The president’s address took a turn toward the absurd when he insisted that the Islamic State “is not Islam. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.”
Tell that to Islamic State fighters, a portion of which hail from Europe and America. It’s doubtful they will listen to him anymore than they did George Bush, when he said shortly after the 9/11 attacks, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”
Obama will establish a much smaller “military footprint” than did Bush, sending 475 U.S. military advisers to Iraq. “As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission – we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” the president insisted.
American air power and an alliance with duplicitous local militias (a “coalition of the willing”), is an example of history repeating itself. The United States had 165,000 troops in Iraq at the height of America’s so-called occupation. Despite their considerable firepower, they were unable to stop foreign fighters from infiltrating the country and waging an insurgency against US forces while fueling the fire of sectarian violence.
Obama’s answer to Islamic State atrocities and territorial expansion is to continue the Bush war doctrine on the cheap. Nothing short of a post-World War II-style occupation will prevent Iraq from descending into a Hobbesian state of nature.
Had the Roosevelt and Truman administrations pursued policies similar to those of Bush and Obama in post-war Germany, allowing Nazi militias to stand against Stalin’s Red Army while American troops returned home, European history would have turned out far differently.
But Americans, like the leaders they elect, believe the lessons of history don’t apply to them. And so, the Islamic State won’t fail to educate those who fail to learn from history.