The joint resolution proposed to Congress by President Barack Obama to "authorize the limited use" of US forces against "the terrorist organization that has referred to itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," or ISIL, misstates the nature of the war. This is evident from the second "whereas" paragraph — "ISIL holds significant territory in Iraq and Syria and has stated its intention to seize more territory and demonstrated the capability to do so." Indeed, ISIL's aim is to establish a caliphate. It is already administrating conquered lands, including conducting trade in oil.

It is much more than a terrorist group, perhaps even more than an insurgency. It has an army in the field, one that has routed regular units of the Iraqi national Army. The airstrikes and special operations used in the war against terrorism will not drive ISIL out of its holdings. Only ground troops can take and hold territory. The question is, who is going to put the boots on the ground needed to win the war within the three-year timeframe of the proposed authorization?

The White House made the proper distinction between terrorism and insurgency in the case of the Taliban. Spokesman Eric Schultz said on Jan. 28 that the Taliban is an "armed insurgency" that uses terror tactics, not a terrorist group. Indeed, before 9/11, the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from Kabul and was seeking international recognition as the legitimate government. The same distinction applies to ISIL, and for that matter to a number of other groups including Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and the rebels in Ukraine. All have grown far beyond mere terrorism.

Mao Zedong laid out the evolution from terrorism to conventional warfare in his writings on guerrilla warfare. At the low end of combat, the insurgents are on the strategic defensive against superior forces. Small cadres and cells carry out offensive actions against soft targets. As the movement grows, guerrilla units form and conduct hit-and-run operations against regular government troops. These small victories attract recruits while wearing down enemy morale. The war cannot be won, however, until the insurgents field their own army that can defeat government forces and take control of the country. The insurgents the US and its allies are facing today have moved into this third stage. Their offensives have driven back government troops and conquered territory.

Mao was not the first to build an army out of nothing. The legendary Spartacus did the same during his revolt against the Roman Republic (73-71 BC). The Roman Senate thought his uprising was a minor problem and only sent militia against him at first. These weak units were defeated and even legions were beaten. Six legions had to be mustered to destroy the rebels.

ISIL and Boko Haram are on the low end of the capabilities spectrum because, like Spartacus, they do not receive outside support. There are other insurgent armies that will be more difficult to defeat because they are state-supported movements. Hezbollah and the Houthis are backed by Iran, rebels in eastern Ukraine by Russia, and the Taliban by powerful factions in Pakistan. They have sanctuaries that shelter them from decisive combat. Drone strikes in the Pakistani frontier region will not eliminate the Taliban threat any more than the bombing campaign against North Vietnam ended Hanoi's aggression. Only aircraft went north, but an army went south.

Insurgencies can be (and usually are) beaten. The long-running insurgency by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka was defeated when government forces overran the entire island. French-armed and -trained troops from Cameroon and Chad are starting to move against Boko Haram. And Iran and Hezbollah have kept the Assad regime alive in Syria in the face of ISIL and other insurgents. The Kurds drove off ISIL at Kobane. NATO is committed to maintaining an Afghan security force of 228,500, though some question whether this force can sustain heavy casualties.

The resources possessed by the US and its allies are much greater than what is available to the insurgents; they just need to be deployed in strength with the aim of driving the enemy from the field.

Sending the message to Congress that the American effort will be another "limited war" does not fit the needs of the current situation. For the president to say the US will not fight more ground wars like Iraq or Afghanistan, which it won, risks fighting something less and losing.


William R. Hawkins is an author and retired US House Foreign Affairs Committee staff member.

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