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Boots on the Ground and the Policymaking Process


I hate the phrase “boots on the ground”. The way it is frequently used seems to imply that if we simply keep our problems 30,000 feet below us we will never have to come face to face with the hard underlying realities that brought us there in the first place. This thinking is easy to fall into, but ultimately flawed.

It is not hard to see why many policymakers grasp at the power of laser-guided bombs whenever domestic morale, outrage, or multilateral consensus demands “something” must be done. It is relatively cheap, fairly low risk, and above all, adjustable to conditions at a moments notice. Rarely, however, are those conditions military in nature. Instead policymakers can moderate involvement, cost, and risk to suit domestic opinion towards the mission, ongoing negotiations, and other political concerns. Unlike a ground campaign, which requires a somewhat reliable local partner, complex logistics, occasionally reserve mobilization, and – of course – the dreaded “Exit Plan”, an air campaign only requires a half decent airfield, some surplus Cold War munitions and a few multi-million dollar aircraft with nothing better to do. Coincidently, the latter set is in considerably greater supply than the first.

A decade plus of war in Iraq and Afghanistan (isn’t it remarkable no one has come up with a compelling acronym for the two yet?) has left the public, policymakers and even military professionals with an aversion for sustained ground operations. This aversion is understandable, but places blame in the wrong place. The two prevailing arguments, especially among pundits that dominate cable news programs, are that counter-insurgencies are unwinnable and unnecessary. The first accusation is demonstrably untrue. The second of course comes down to one’s definition of “necessity”, yet I believe recent events have demonstrated that yesterday’s concerns quickly become today’s pressing threats. If blame must be laid at anyone’s door for the apparent lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan (an exercise I see as fruitless, but which I will engage in for the sake of argument), it is the those who knowingly refused to prepare for the endgame other than the “flowering of democracy”, and thus left commanders completely flatfooted when the security situation seriously deteriorated. Ironically, those people, the Bush administration, were led to that disastrous conclusion by a very similar assessment of the comparative advantages of ground and air power that informs today’s advocates for “no boots on the ground”. Indeed, it was the success of operations such as Allied Force (Kosovo), Desert Storm (1st Gulf War) and the successive no-fly zones over Iraq that seemed to indicate the decisive advantage of new high-tech NATO tactics over the rogue actors of the international community. Conversely, the extended UN-led peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia had been dangerous, unpopular, and ultimately did not prevent humanitarian disasters. The overthrow of the Taliban by irregulars supported from the air was heralded by Secretary Rumsfeld as a “revolution in military affairs”, and further vindicated the “home by Christmas” mentality that pervaded the Pentagon in the long run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In reality, these operations exposed the problems with the smart-bomb approach. The first is that planes can only hit what they can see, and (hopefully) only what they can identify as positively hostile. Thus, when leaders of conventional armies (Gaddafi, Saddam, Assad) know they have lost air superiority they either go-to-ground altogether or specifically mimic the patterns and equipment of the NATO proxy force. This may deprive them of some advantages in heavy weapons, but without a reasonably effective ground force (local irregulars or NATO troops themselves) to press the advantage, the military issue will remain undecided. Obviously the Islamic State has been operating as an irregular force without considerable heavy weapons since the start, so while airstrikes may impede their movement and dent their offensive capabilities, it does not remove their main advantage vis-a-vis their foes – sheer motivation. The second problem is the assumption that the threat is primarily a military one, and so the application of military force alone will be sufficient. This is the more dangerous assumption of the two. This is because even if the aggressor group can be targeted and eliminated effectively, without follow-up operations, the conditions that allowed that group to arise in the first place will in all likelihood remain unaddressed. This misconception was common to the framing of missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The belief in the ‘infective’ nature of democracy is as misguided as the belief that peace is the absence of visible violence.

Putting “boots on the ground” should not be synonymous with inviting defeat. Given the proper means, both material and political, counter-insurgency can produce results that cannot be replicated through airstrikes, isolated Special Forces operations, or local irregulars. The reasons are sometimes military-technical, as illustrated above, but most often exist in the grey zone between strategic and political. While air power is by definition purely kinetic, handled properly, ground forces can produce non-kinetic effects. This is critical because targeting the designated enemy alone, be they insurgents, regime loyalists, or glorified criminals, is voluntarily fighting a war of attrition. It is the equivalent in military terms of fighting a state without making any attempt to destroy its war-making capacity. Even simply seizing territory, without projecting full-spectrum control over it, is meaningless. Insurgents, by their nature, don’t need nominal control in order to use the space to their advantage. Furthermore, as outlined above, it does not address the conditions that allowed them to become a threat in the first place.

When given the means and political direction to do so, NATO armies can conduct effective counter-insurgency campaigns. Despite the popular perception, the war in Afghanistan was hardly an unqualified failure, in spite of the many lapses regarding phase IV (post combat) operations. More importantly, it forced the armies of NATO to relearn painful lessons that had nearly all experienced before, and develop newer, better techniques.

Ground force deployments are not the answer to every question of regional instability. Even when they are the most effective option, they remain infeasible for political reasons; this is part of the natural process of policymaking. However, when due to either poor collective memory or lack of leadership, policy options are blacklisted from public discourse, and we risk falling into the same wishful thinking that brought us into many of the predicaments we face today.


Liam Brister is a second year student studying International Relations at the University of Toronto.

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