The Cable

U.S. Airstrikes Whack One Thousand Islamic State Fighters a Month, Air Force General Says

A top U.S. air commander has put a body count on the number of Islamic State fighters killed in a month, even though body counts are supposed to matter.

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The top U.S. air commander in the Middle East said Friday that the American-led coalition bombing Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria are “removing over 1,000 enemy fighters a month from the battlefield” — adding yet another voice to the string of military and civilian leaders who have put a body count on a war where body counts aren’t supposed to matter.

“The number is significant, but it’s also only a single indicator,” Lt. Gen. John Hesterman told reporters by phone from his headquarters in Qatar.

The number of dead extremists isn’t as important as reforming Iraqi governance or strangling the finances of the Islamic State, he said, falling more closely in line with the White House. “But we’re taking the enemy off the battlefield at a great rate, and you can count on that,” Hesterman said.

Critics say one of the biggest failures of Washington’s war plan is the refusal to put U.S. forward air controllers on the ground with Iraqi troops to more effectively call in airstrikes on Islamic State positions. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain have made a cottage industry out of calling for the deployment of joint terminal attack controllers — or JTACs — to Iraq, and some retired military officials have also grumbled about the lack of eyes on the ground.

JTACs are operating in air command centers spread throughout Iraq, Hesterman said, where they watch live feeds piped back from drones and fighter jets circling enemy positions instead of embedding with Iraqi troops.

Speaking to CNN on Friday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said while JTACs are most important in urban fights where more precise airstrikes are essential to avoid civilian casualties, persistent aerial surveillance coverage is effective in the more open areas of Iraq and Syria.

Hesterman also downplayed reports of an air strike near the city of Kirkuk on Wednesday that flattened a jihadi car bomb-making factory. He said U.S. aircraft dropped a “fairly small weapon” on the building, located in an industrial area, which triggered a secondary explosion from the bomb-making material stored inside. While that second explosion essentially flattened the entire industrial area — and the boom was heard dozens of miles away — so far there is no evidence of civilian casualties, Hesterman said.

Initial reports said dozens of civilians were killed and injured. And a U.S. Central Command spokesperson on Thursday told FP it had received reports of civilian casualties near the site and was prepared to investigate if they could be confirmed.

The overall bombing campaign shows few signs of letting up anytime soon. After 10 months and $2.6 billion spent by Washington, Islamic State forces continue their ground war against Iraqi troops and Shiite militias in a bloody struggle around the edges of Anbar province, which the jihadis own almost completely.

Hesterman and other U.S. officials insist the daily airstrikes are key to buying the Iraqi Army time to regain footing after a string of humiliating defeats in Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi. The strikes also create space for the estimated 3,000 U.S. troops on the ground to retrain demoralized Iraqi Army units they originally trained just a few years ago.

But even a former fighter pilot like Hesterman admitted that “air power doesn’t hold and govern territory — Iraq will have to do that” with troops on the ground.

“Some competent ground forces are going to have to go peel” the jihadis out of the towns and villages in which they’re hiding, he said.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency

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