Can Airstrikes Stop the Islamic State?
The United States has been raining bombs on Iraq -- and Syria might be next. But data show it's going to take more than planes to knock the Islamic State off its perch.
Almost three years after leaving the troubled nation’s skies, the Pentagon resumed airstrikes in Iraq on Aug. 8. In the month since, fighters, bombers, attack aircraft, and drones have carried out 154 strikes against the forces of the Islamic State (IS). They’re already at almost twice the tempo of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Barack Obama intends to finally unveil his strategy for dealing with IS. The president has already made clear that airstrikes will continue to play a central role.
So what has been achieved so far? To date, U.S. operations in Iraq have focused on the very narrow objectives first laid out by the president as he worked through his strategy on the fly, now repeated mantra-like by CENTCOM to journalists every day: "The strikes were conducted under authority to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, support humanitarian efforts, and support Iraqi forces that are acting in furtherance of these objectives."
Airstrikes began with the defense of trapped civilians on Sinjar Mountain, later helping to liberate the besieged town of Amerli. Others have focused on defending Erbil, home not only to the U.S. Consulate (and Western oil companies) in Kurdish Iraq, but also to a secret forward base from which special operations forces and the CIA are said to operate.
Some 70 percent of U.S. strikes have been in the Mosul Dam area, a key location given its vulnerability to a catastrophic terrorist act. Obama claimed Kurdish militias retook the dam on Aug. 18, but CENTCOM’s near-daily bombing of the area ever since suggests IS remains heavily dug in nearby. And on Sept. 6, the focus of bombing moved south for the first time, with U.S. aircraft directly supporting Sunni tribes and the Iraqi Army as they try to hold off an IS assault on Haditha Dam in Anbar province.
In almost every one of these strikes, the focus has been on knocking out IS’s military hardware, much of which was originally paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. In its briefs, CENTCOM claims to have destroyed or severely damaged 42 Humvees and 87 "technicals," or armed all-terrain trucks. Three tanks, 16 armored personnel carriers, and two mobile artillery pieces have also been hit.
The Islamic State took much of that equipment from the Iraqi Army. When Iraqi troops retreated in the face of IS’s advance, they left behind millions of dollars of high-tech gear for the marauding jihadists to pick up. "Artillery, mortars, special equipment like night visions…. A lot of small arms and AKs, body armor, helmets. They are an army now. They [IS] have everything," an Iraqi major who witnessed the fall of Mosul told U.S. Army Captain Chris Mercado.
Restricting IS’s movement and preventing further lightning advances remain key goals. Propaganda videos showing IS forces advancing swiftly across Iraq’s deserts bear an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. invasion of 2003. Yet the group may have lost some advantage now that the United States is acting as Iraq’s proxy air force. "There are effects we can have, air-only. We can eliminate artillery and mortars, prevent them massing large infantry forces in the open," says Maj. Gen. Jim Poss, former director of Air Force intelligence who retired in 2012.
Still, the latest air war faces distinct challenges if the true goal is, as President Obama has said, to defeat IS. A large quantity of that captured Iraqi armor has already crossed the border into Syria, where it is being used by IS to devastating effect against both the regime and other rebel forces. If Washington truly wants to destroy IS it will have to follow the terrorists into Syria, say some in Congress and the media. Intelligence-gathering U.S. Predator drones have already been filmed flying over the IS stronghold of Raqqa, and Obama has reportedly said he believes he has the authorization to launch strikes on the other side of the Syrian border.
But there are good reasons American policymakers haven’t yet rushed to bomb Syria. "There’s a good risk of losses to the U.S. Air Force if we go into Syria without consent," says Poss. "Syrian air defenses are among the best in the world because they have to go up against one of the best air forces in the world, the Israelis, almost daily." Israel has managed to outwit its neighbor’s ground-to-air missile defenses a few times thanks to tactical surprise. But a concerted U.S. air campaign against IS in Syria would require multiple sorties every day. Syria’s foreign minister has already warned that the United States will need President Bashar al-Assad’s permission to carry out operations against the terrorist group — something few in Washington have the appetite for requesting. Even so, there’s a risk that bombing in Syria could open an unwanted front in the war.
It will likely take more than just an air campaign to decimate the Islamic State. Beyond a few hundred military advisers in Iraq, however, American boots on the ground aren’t an option the White House is seriously considering. Recent U.S. military actions in Libya and Yemen have focused exclusively on air power. That’s Obama’s preferred model for fighting the Islamic State, as well. "American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again," the president has made clear.
Yet there’s scant proof that airpower-only campaigns actually work. Much of Libya is now overrun by militant Islamists, while Yemen is actually less stable today after five years of secret U.S. drone strikes.
Ground troops will eventually be needed to hold territory once IS is forced out of the areas of Syria and Iraq it now controls. Washington and its Western allies not only have little appetite for another ground war, they don’t have enough credibility to conduct one following the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Presumably that’s why Obama has promoted the idea of a regional solution to the problem. Yet with the Syrian and Iraqi armies barely capable of stepping up, it’s not clear who would fill that void.
"If you want the Iraqi Army to go capture everything in the next few weeks then yes, it’s going to struggle," says Afzal Ashraf, a former Royal Air Force group captain who served in Iraq. Sorting out the Iraqi Army’s disastrous leadership could take months, maybe years, and time is in short supply. Yet Ashraf thinks it’s still possible to turn things around: "Once you start using [airstrikes] to gain small tactical victories, it starts to build up its expertise fairly rapidly, and they become more confident."
Others too are confident that bombing can sufficiently degrade the Islamic State enough to turn the tide of the conflict. Lt. Gen. David Deptula was an architect of the successful U.S. air campaign that destroyed the Taliban in 2001. As he notes, the Northern Alliance was actually losing the war in Afghanistan in 2001 before U.S. airpower and small teams of elite U.S. forces on the ground turned the tide — and in just weeks.
Yet if Obama means to do the same to the Islamic State, airstrikes will have to increase by an order of magnitude, Deptula believes. "We need to institute an aggressive air campaign in which airpower is applied like a thunderstorm, and not like a drizzle." He believes many hundreds of armed sorties a day will be needed if Washington is serious about wanting to "halt, paralyze, and then render ineffective [IS]."
We’ll soon find out whether Obama has the appetite for that kind of fight.