by James A. Russell and Donald Abenheim
The Super Bowl-like reporting about the assault on Mosul is regrettably but perhaps inevitably cloaked in America’s desperate search for a clear-cut, decisive battle that will allow the country to bask in the glow of the long-sought and long-denied victory in Iraq.
Chattering heads in think tanks have repeatedly claimed that war has inalterably changed. Yet Americans long for a single climactic battle, made all the more dramatic with citations of George Patton or Douglas MacArthur, our war heroes of yesteryear.
It is a quixotic and fruitless quest—as demonstrated by America’s quarter-century of bloody and expensive wars in and around Iraq, to say nothing of Afghanistan. America’s leaders have promised decisive battlefield victory in the Middle East and Iraq on countless occasions—only to see the supposed victory recede over the horizon just out of reach. From the moment of Colin Powell’s all-star briefing in 1991 of a cauldron battle to annihilate the Iraqi Army in Kuwait, America’s so-called decisive battles in Iraq have never proved decisive. The only result is that the war grinds on, chewing up families and money.
President George H.W. Bush promised victory in the decisive battle of Operation Desert Storm 25 years ago. The world watched in rapt fascination as U.S. forces routed Saddam’s rag-tag force, with the destruction of the war symbolized by the carnage along the highway of death. Although America held a victory parade in Washington, DC, to celebrate its great victory, the victory proved elusive. The medals handed out to Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and others notwithstanding, America’s army had not achieved its principal objective of destroying the Iraqi army. Most of Saddam’s forces escaped Kuwait, living to fight another day and, perhaps most importantly, living to put down the various rebellions against his rule that followed the war.
The victory in Gulf War I left America policing Iraq’s skies for a decade. During that time, punitive air strikes accomplished little other than to heighten the suffering of the Iraqis. The last fusillade in Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, itself touted as a decisive battle at the time, seemed emblematic of the frustrating outcome of the supposed victory in Kuwait.
President George W. Bush also promised victory with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a battle in part meant to settle the unfinished business of Gulf War I and rid the world of a dangerous tyrant. As in 1991, U.S. forces swept through Saddam’s troops. The toppling of his statue in Baghdad in April 2003 symbolized yet again a decisive victory in battle. Bush triumphantly declared “mission accomplished” in his dramatic landing and subsequent speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003.
That victory, however, never materialized in the face of an Iraqi insurgency. Instead, the war slowly eroded America’s will to fight as the killed, wounded, costs, and frustrations mounted and Iraq slowly came apart at the seams.
Several supposedly “decisive” battles punctuated America’s occupation of Iraq. First there was the botched April 2004 assault on Fallujah. The Iraqis called off that battle. That led to the second decisive battle of Fallujah in which the Marines flattened the city. Most of the insurgents simply decamped to Mosul and other less dangerous places. The battle was won, but the war went on.
In the fall of 2006, U.S. forces surrounded Ramadi for yet another decisive battle and rooted out the insurgents neighborhood by painstaking neighborhood. The United States briefly gained the upper hand over the insurgents, but that too proved an illusion. The United States used temporary success on the battlefield to look for the exit—an exit graciously granted by the Iraqis. Like others before it, however, the supposed victories in Ramadi and elsewhere from 2005-2008 proved short-lived—and not decisive. By 2014, the black flags of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) flew over Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul, which Americans had shed blood and treasure to secure several years before.
Today, the ongoing battle for Mosul is unlikely to prove any more decisive than any of the other “decisive” battles the United States has fought in and around Iraq over the last quarter century.
From the Viet Cong to the Taliban
The Islamic State won’t be conquered or eliminated if Mosul falls. Like the insurgents in Fallujah and Ramadi a decade ago, those who survive the battle will melt away to fight another day somewhere else. The war will go on and escalate in what Clausewitz called the realm of primordial violence, anger, and hatred.
The United States clings to the outdated and outmoded belief that these wars can be won by a single decisive battle as described in battle paintings, war college classrooms, and Hollywood war movies. In all of these depictions, victory on the battlefield prompts the enemy to surrender, lay down his arms, and stop fighting, a scenario belied by so many examples since Austerlitz.
IS and its Sunni extremist cohorts are simply the latest in a long line of irregular and guerrilla enemies who were unimpressed by U.S. bombs and bombast. From the Viet Cong to the Taliban, insurgents have correctly recognized that U.S. commitment to fighting far from home wanes over time as the costs mount.
IS will continue in its revolutionary, jihadist quest after the battle of Mosul. Its ultimate success or failure will depend more on its long-term popular appeal either among those it professes to defend or those whom it attacks than on the bombs that rained down on them over the last several years. Revolutionary movements are rarely destroyed on the battlefield. They tend to fade away or, alternatively, realize their political objectives.
As for Iraq, the battle for the country will enter yet another phase of violence even as Washington and its allies proclaim that victory is just over the horizon—within reach with just a little more effort.
Photo: U.S. troops in Mosul in 2005
Donald Abenheim is a professor of history in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. The views expressed here are his own.