The past 13 years, America has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back
"There's no need to reinvent the wheel." It's an old refrain that holds up today in Syria and Iraq. While today's insurgents are ruthless, resourceful and adept at weaving themselves into the fabric of society, they are not ten feet tall.
In an urban environment, whether inland or along the coast, it is true that it is difficult for opposing forces to distinguish enemy combatants from noncombatants. Because the targets are clandestine in their very existence, they are unlike a uniformed military force. You must be embedded in the population.
Syria is more Laos than Bosnia, and Iraq is not Vietnam so much as it is reminiscent of efforts to support China against Japan by the Office of Strategic Services. Since the advent of airpower, we have consistently been engaged in secret air wars abroad. It is the decade since 9/11 that is an aberration.
Drones are far from the only aircraft in America's arsenal. They lack ability to discern intent, and cannot discern between combatants and noncombatants from the air. Their utility in the 21st century is limited, and debate about drones and transparency into their operations creates more problems than it solves.
At the onset of US airstrikes, the US military made quick work of Syria's vaunted air defenses and cut through their radars like butter. This is largely due to the Pentagon's decision to relegate drones to a supporting role, instead of roles attributed to them in Obama's shadow wars--a misconception in itself.
It's time to go back to doing things the old way, and a solution can be found in recent history.
A successful model that sidesteps many of the political headaches drones have caused the White House can found in Central America in the 1980s. In one of Seymour Hersh's seminal pieces, the storied scribe explains US Armed Forces "through a front company, secretly bought several small, twin-engine light aircraft, outfitted them with the most advanced electronic and interception gear, and began operating them without detection from a small landing strip in Honduras." QUEENS HUNTER would prove instrumental in both the war on communism and the war on drugs. Their storied exploits remain a valued resource on which to predicate winning strategies present day.
Hersh further explains the clandestine unit masqueraded as "a civilian aerial photography operation." He is referring, of course, to the units that ultimately found Pablo Escobar, in an age predating drones. Manhunting is a core competency of the United States, and the last thirteen years have seen no shortage of attempts to not only reinvent the wheel but form an octagon for no logical reason.
A common misconception is Eisenhower and other modern presidents including Reagan 'contained' adversaries during their presidencies. The opposite is true, as Ike was infatuated with covert action. Armed drones fulfilled their purpose in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan but are ill-equipped to hunt down and kill current threats. Before the war on terror, the US was actually very aggressive in the shaping--overtly, clandestinely, and covertly--of preferred outcomes abroad.
Today's asymmetric threats exhibit a tenacity unparalleled by the al-Qaida of 2001. The US must match the enemy's tenacity, and it begins with the employment of air power and boots on the ground. Whether we acknowledge that publicly is irrelevant; it is necessary.
This does not mean black sites, but it does mean capturing the enemy and interrogating them. This does not mean invading anyone, really; it does mean working with occasionally unsavory characters to accomplish one-off objectives and to missions. It does mean working with the most effective force on the ground at the time, regardless of reputation.
Most of all, though, the way forward means standing tall so others can stand beside us.
Utilized properly, clandestine and truly covert action can and should stand in lieu of conventional military action. I am not advocating to reinvade Iraq or to invade Syria; on the contrary, I am advancing an argument for the exact opposite. We should fight smarter, not harder. It is time to revert to strategies that have worked for every other President since Washington himself, seen or unseen.