Ghosts of Tora Bora and Libya: Lessons Learned for the Fight Against ISIS

Once again, the United States and its allies are engaged in waging a campaign of airstrikes in the Middle East. A coalition has assembled to fight the Islamic State; this coalition comprises not only Western states like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, but also Middle Eastern states—notably Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. But past events have also shown the danger of external intervention without a clear strategy. Conveniently, two air campaigns, the 2001 Battle for Tora Bora and the 2011 air campaign over Libya, provide lessons for how the United States and its allies ought to move forward in the campaign. Ultimately, these lessons point to one conclusion: for these airstrikes to have a serious impact, Turkey needs to join the coalition against the Islamic State.

MQ-1 Predator

The first instance from which we can draw lessons is the American-led offensive at Tora Bora in 2001. Occurring before large numbers of American troops hit the ground, the goal of this offensive was to capture or kill the large number of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants (most notably Osama bin Laden) who had ensconced themselves in a high altitude system of fortified caves mere miles from the Pakistani border. Small numbers (under 100) of US Special Forces moved into the mountain range ahead of roughly 2000 Afghan militiamen under the pay of the United States. These US Special Forces called in massive airstrikes to the fortified caves and bunkers at Tora Bora—including a 15,000 lb. bomb so big that it had to be pushed out of the back of a C-130 cargo plane—in advance of the system being stormed by the more numerous Afghan militias. In the aftermath of the battle however, it became clear that the vast majority of the targeted militants, including the number one target Osama bin Laden, had escaped via mountain passes over the border into neighbouring Pakistani tribal regions.

This incident provides two lessons for current operations against the Islamic State. Firstly, it shows that whenever a target is located close to a border, that border must be sealed. At Tora Bora, Al Qaeda fighters were able to evade capture by sneaking across the border to Pakistan at night. This lesson is particularly relevant given recent fighting in the Syrian border town of Khobani, a stone’s throw away from Turkey. Islamic State fighters have encircled the town and while coalition forces have already stuck the militants; if the border is in any way porous then the militants will be able to melt into the Turkish countryside and avoid serious damage.

The other lesson from Tora Bora is that small numbers of Special Forces can be immensely useful when tasked with calling in airstrikes. At Tora Bora, US Special Forces were highly effective at infiltrating the area and laser-guiding airstrikes without detection. Without their influence, it is doubtful that the airstrikes would have had any degree of accuracy. In the current conflict with the Islamic States, neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has officially announced the deployment of Special Forces to combat the Islamic State; so far the only acknowledgement has been of 200 Australian commandos on the ground in Iraq. To maximise the effectiveness of airstrikes, there need to be eyes on the ground and one hopes that the states which form the anti-Islamic State coalition are represented on the ground in some capacity.

The other campaign which can inform present operations in Iraq and Syria is the 2011 NATO air war against Libya. The primary goal of the intervention was to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from defeating rebel forces using the Libyan air force’s overwhelming superiority. The National Transition Council, the internationally recognised representatives of the Libyan rebel factions, asked for a no-fly zone to be established; a no-fly zone was approved by the UN Security Council, and responsibility for maintaining it was delegated to NATO. Though the no-fly zone was a success, actual airstrikes remained very limited compared to other offensives, such as Tora Bora.

Once again, we can draw two lessons for current operations from the Libyan example. For one thing, a no-fly zone can be very effective. Though the only faction with serious aerial strike capacity is the Assad regime in Syria, Turkey has been very vocal in calling for a no-fly zone to be implemented to create a buffer zone along its border with Syria. The problem in this case is that the coalition’s intervention is aimed against the Islamic State, rather than towards the Assad regime in Syria. Establishing a no-fly zone would require a broadening of the coalition’s mandate, but the Libyan example shows that it is possible and can be conducted with minimal casualties to the coalition forces.

The second lesson to be learned is that multilateral airstrikes go far in preserving an air of legitimacy on the international stage. Because the air intervention in Libya was authorised by the UN Security Council, it was more difficult to assert that the campaign was the result of the belligerence of a few states. In 2014, it seems that the coalition has taken this lesson to heart. Not only is the campaign being waged by a large number of states, many of those states are actually Arab states, which helps distance the campaign from critiques of Western “imperialism.” The fact that the strikes are multilateral will continue to increase support for the action against the Islamic State, which will further solidify the coalition’s position in the Middle East.

So in the end, we find four lessons for the current campaign: that in conflicts in close proximity to international borders, those borders must be impermeable; that special forces on the ground are very effective in targeting airstrikes, that no-fly zones can be effective, and that a multilateral campaign is the best way forward. The combination of these four lessons leads to one conclusion: Turkey needs to be drawn into the conflict on the side of the coalition.

Though the border between Syria and Turkey is already sealed, but roughly 400km of frontier is a lot of distance to patrol. A major part of any Turkish cooperation could be to render that border entirely impermeable. Preventing militants from slipping across the border will be a major contribution to containing the conflict. Because of its vicinity to the conflict, Turkey can also provide some measure of local intelligence gathering, much as Special Forces on the ground would do. Bringing Turkey into the alliance would further broaden the multilateral support for the campaign. Moreover, Turkey’s cooperation might be bargained for by the establishment of a no-fly zone, for which Turkey has vigorously appealed. Lessons show this can be effective. Although Syrian air defences have recently been supplemented by Russian ground-to-air missiles and are much more sophisticated than those in Libya, the principle has been established.

There are always dangers in making historical comparisons when discussing international relations. Situations are never exact matches, and what worked in one situation may not work in another. But the cases of the Battle of Tora Bora and the 2011 Libyan Intervention are sufficiently analogous to the current action being taken in Syria and Iraq that we can draw the aforementioned four lessons and recommend that the coalition against the Islamic State intensifies its effort to bring Turkey into its fold.

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