I found out about the attacks in Paris the old-fashioned way: reading about them on the front page of a Mexico City newspaper. (I was there briefly for a conference on organized crime; an in-and-out two-day visit.) I would like to make two points, both of which I am sure are being made elsewhere.
First, the attack was not unprecedented. Mass casualty events of this size are rare, but they do happen. The below figure uses data from the Global Terrorism Database and removes all incidents in Northern Ireland. (The Troubles would otherwise drive the results; they more resembled a low-level civil war than “terrorism” per se.) Political violence was far more common in the 1970s and 1980s. There were fewer mass-casualty attacks, but they did occur. After removing airplane bombings in 1970, 1974 and 1988, you have 76 people dead in the 1980 explosion at the Bologna train station, 61 dead in the botched hostage situation at the Rome airport in 1973, 37 dead in the 1980 London nightclub firebombing, and 19 other incidents with double-digit death tolls over those two decades.
If the Islamic State manages to make this the first of a wave of attacks, then it would be something new ... but I would be surprised if they have the operational capability to carry out multiple mass casualty assaults.
Second, France is limited in what it can do. French airstrikes are not likely to accomplish more than the U.S. coalition has already accomplished, as Kevin Drum has pointed out. Now, the air war against the Islamic State is not played out. The coalition has only now started to target the oil trade, which will weaken the Islamic State’s finances. But it is not clear how stepped-up French participation in the air war will alter the correlation of forces. It is more likely to simply let the USAF ease up a bit on its operational tempo.
Now, with U.S. airlift and cooperation from neighboring countries, France could assemble three brigades to invade and destroy the Islamic State. Inasmuch as attack planning happens in Syria, that might even have a salutary security effect. (The U.S. really did disrupt Al-Qaeda’s ability to plan after it invaded Afghanistan.) France has fallen behind its 1999 commitment to be able to deploy 30,000 troops on short notice, but with American airlift and ISR support it has enough capacity to deploy and sustain half that figure (see also here and here and here). Consider how rapidly French deployed to Mali (including allied African forces):
But what then? Three brigades could probably disrupt ISIS forces on the ground and retake all of the territory it occupies. But it would not be enough to hold it. You could turn the area over to the Syrian National Army, but that seems impossible (on multiple levels) unless you had a political settlement of the civil war.
You could also try to magically cook up a third force capable of holding the area, but good luck with that ... it did not work terribly well in Iraq the first time around. Invite in the Egyptian army? Paging Marco Rubio: That would be a bad idea even were it possible, as the commentator here argued convincingly.
You could leave the area in chaos, but then you would have accomplished precisely nothing in terms of preventing terror attacks against the Hexagon or other parts of the West.
Moreover, with such a small footprint, it is hard to see how the collateral damage from retaking Iraqi and Syrian cities would be anything less than enormous. Which means a lot of angry civilians and some awful propaganda losses.
So you could settle in for a long-term occupation, but I do not believe that anyone in their right mind wants to try that again.
In short, while the French (with American help) probably could dispatch the Islamic State in short order, they won’t.
Unless there is another attack, in France or in the United States. Now, I doubt that it will come to that; it seems unlikely that ISIS has the capability to launch multiple mass attacks. Moreover, intelligence and law enforcement is now on high alert. But unlikely does not mean impossible. It just means mildly improbable.
Should another attack happen I fear that a ground war would be politically inevitable. Futile and likely counterproductive, but inevitable. A terrible dilemma for whomever is in charge.
A request below the fold.