Ex-CIA’er to Ex-KGB’er: Defeat, Mr. Putin, lies in ignoring the Islamists’ words and waging less than total war

From this distance, Mr. Putin, it appears that when you unleashed the Russian air force on 30 September 2015 you expected to save Bashir al-Assad’s regime and bring order to Syria and Iraq in a relatively short period of time. Well, the application of Russian air power is continuing, but only a month after its start, the Islamic State’s (IS) fighters responded by executing a superbly professional operation that destroyed a Russian airliner flying over the Sinai, killing the 224 people aboard.

Damn tough luck, Mr. Putin. It is clear that Russia has a serious strategic problem with the Islamists, but in the past six weeks you behaved as a reckless, ignorant, and really rather dumb jackass, as have Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush. Mr. Obama, Senators McCain, Graham, Rubio, and Cruz, former-Secretary Clinton, Mr. Cameron, Mr. Blair, Mrs. Merkle, Mr. Hollande, and sundry other lesser European leaders.

You have behaved as if your air force would be sufficient to deliver victory, that it would intimidate the mujahideen into quitting, and that Russia would suffer few casualties as you unfolded in Syria a Russian version of the Cheney-Rumsfeld “cakewalk” in Iraq. The odds also are enormous that you never bothered to read a word of what the mujahideen have said and written since Osama bin Laden declared war in 1996, and so you were entirely ignorant of the kind of enemy you were facing. Frankly, Mr. Putin, these are very bad grades for a man that history will assess as aspiring to be “Tsar of all the Russians.”

Since the year of 1996, Islamist leaders, sub-leaders, theologians, field commanders, and fighters-in-the-trenches have said U.S./Western interventionism had motivated them to wage war, that they would kill as many of their enemies as was necessary to rid the Islamic world of Western military interventionists, and that they were waging a religious war, one that their faith required them to fight until they won or were eradicated.

The Islamists also told their foes that they intended to geographically expand their war as quickly and as far as possible, and that they believed that, while victory could only be granted by Allah, they could assist the divinity by inflicting casualties on their sophomoric, casualty averse-enemies. They also explained that, Allah willing, they would cause a steadily increasing drain on Western nations’ treasuries — especially that of the United States — which had already been bankrupted by the devastatingly destructive spendthrifts who govern them. Allah, it seems clear, has delivered in spades to those on whom his favor falls.

Whatever response you come up with to avenge the avenging IS attack on the Russian passenger aircraft, you must do it with hard but clear-seeing eyes. If you respond only with more intense aerial attacks, you will be playing into IS hands because a war that was caused by tepid Western military interventionism can hardly be won by more of the same tepid military interventionism. Such attacks will have little impact on the Islamists’ capabilities and manpower, will strengthen mujahideen morale because your reliance on air power will signal that Russia does not intend to win, will increase popular sympathy and clerical support for the mujahideen across the Muslim world, and will further drain your treasury, which is in even worse shape than the U.S. treasury. Moreover, such under-achieving but Muslim-killing aerial attacks will further anger the lethal and growing domestic Islamist forces you confront in Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, and probably will hasten the large-scale attack those fighters are now planning to stage inside Russia. That attack is the post-Sinai shoe that has yet to drop, and when it does, Mr. Putin, you will look as much the bewildered ninny as those other “leaders” mentioned above.

What you are looking at, Mr. Putin, is the following absurd but all too real scenario. Only an enormous ground force — perhaps a million soldiers might provide enough shooters to get the Islamists’ attention — has a ghost of a chance of defeating the mujahideen. And you must keep in mind that even waging war in that way will not ensure victory. You will recall, Mr. Putin, that when you and your colleagues were still strutting, arrogant, and murderous Soviets, sufficient force was not used in Afghanistan and so the Red Army’s “limited contingent” there — the model for Rumsfeld’s “small footprint” — was soundly thrashed and evicted by the Afghan Islamists after Moscow foolishly had started this whole jihad mess by invading that never-beaten country in 1979.

In addition, if Russian forces fight a whole-hog war in Syria/Iraq, Mr. Putin, do not think that it will at all resemble anything predicted or advocated by the self-styled but always-wrong experts who staff the West’s counter-insurgency brains-trust — David Kilcullen, Max Boot, David Petraeus, John Nagl, etc.

  • There will be no economic component to the war your forces wage, except for Russia’s deepening bankruptcy. It will have to be all raw, indiscriminate, and unrelenting military power because the enemy will not compromise his faith for, say, a modern, Russian-paid for irrigation system, highway, or mobile-phone network.
  • There will be no hearts-and-minds component to the war because there are absolutely zero hearts and minds to win among the Islamists, their supporters, and their quickly growing number of sympathizers. The Islamists are waging a religious war and have believed in and welcomed the reality that their jihad will end in only victory or death, and that either ending is in Allah’s hands alone.
  • There will be no diplomatic breakthroughs and certainly no “political solution” to the war unless you militarily annihilate the Islamists and then militarily impose either Russian or Western paganism on whatever Muslims remain alive in the Syria/Iraq Theater. You could thereby establish a temporarily stable situation which would last until the coming Muslim generation reaches Kalashnikov age. (NB: Mr. Putin, if any of your political, intelligence, or military advisers tell you that “all wars have political solutions” and one can be reached in this case without first securing a complete military victory over the Islamists, have them shot, drawn, and quartered.)

There is one more item beginning “There will be no” which is so obvious that it ought not to be necessary to state. Still, given recent statements by you and you foreign minister it may be worth stating.

  • There will be no effective help coming Russia’s way from the United States, the EU, or the Sunni Arab regimes.
  • You must know, Mr. Putin, that the leaders and the elites of the United States and the EU are (a) perpetual adolescents; (b) reliable moral and physical cowards; (c) pseudo-intellectuals who cannot — despite expensive educations and history’s lessons — conceive of the immense and ruthless power possessed by a religion at war; (d) vicious haters of their own citizens, butchers of infants and military personnel, and fawning lovers and protectors of the Third World dregs that are inundating and destroying the cohesiveness of their societies.
  • These men and women and their preferred and pampered minority groups, Mr. Putin, are walking/talking dead-people who are smugly but blindly striding toward domestic turmoil and perhaps a revolution that will — pray God — destroy them, and, at least in America, allow the nation to restore republicanism, Christianity, the rule of law, and traditional English liberties. Russia, Mr. Putin, is better-off without such allies, as they are regimes that will turn on you it if they lose a half-dozen soldiers or if a few mujahideen-supporting civilians are killed. If you and Russia really need massive military help from the United States and the EU, it would be best to get out of Syria now, use Russia’s military forces to annihilate the Islamists in the Caucasus, and spend whatever money you have to close the border between Central Asia and Afghanistan, across which Russia’s primary strategic threat from the Islamists will come.
  • As for Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab regimes, Mr. Putin, you must keep in mind that for them there is no happier, holier, or more desired outcome to this war than the Islamists’ annihilation of the apostate Shias and Alawites and their humiliation and bankrupting of the United States, the EU, and Russia. Indeed, you may have noticed that the media is reporting that the IS fighters have never used anti-tank weapons against Syrian armor as tellingly and in such numbers as they have since Russia entered the war. There is, of course, no need to for you wonder where those weapons are coming from, or who is paying for them.

So there you have it, Mr. Putin, you and Russia are in quite a fix. But as bad as things are, they could be worse. You might, for example, have the United States and the EU as your allies. As allies, they would help you in the way they helped themselves in Afghanistan; that is, they will take a problem that required a murderous, 15-month punitive expedition — killing all that moved, demolishing all that stood, and leaving behind a desert named “Peace” — and turn it into a decade-plus disaster that has left the Islamists stronger and able to project power into Central Asia and Pakistan. Indeed, the U.S. and NATO repeated the kind of childish, half-way military campaign you and your Soviet pals waged in Afghanistan — including a ridiculous reliance on Special Forces — but it has cost them infinitely more.

Take history’s indelible lesson, Mr. Putin, expecting victory when tepidly fighting alongside effeminate post-Cold-War Western allies is a fool’s dream or an ignoramus’s expectation. If you are not willing to go all in and do your own dirty work until Russia destroys IS in Syria/Iraq, get all out and take care of your Islamist problem at home.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.