Best Defense

More bombs won’t save Iraq

Many Americans are probably wondering why the United States and its vaunted airpower cannot stop the Islamic State’s seemingly inexorable march across Iraq and Syria.

FALLUJAH, IRAQ:  A picture released 21 November 2004 by the Multi National Force-Iraq shows an insurgent stronghold going up in smoke after being struck by a precision aerial attack during Operation al-Fajr in the devastated city of Fallujah, 50 kms west of Baghdad. The US military said that its forces and Iraqi troops had detained 1,450 people during the massive operation against insurgents in Fallujah. It also said few pockets of rebels still active in some areas of the city.   AFP PHOTO/HO-MNF-I  (Photo credit should read /AFP/Getty Images)
FALLUJAH, IRAQ: A picture released 21 November 2004 by the Multi National Force-Iraq shows an insurgent stronghold going up in smoke after being struck by a precision aerial attack during Operation al-Fajr in the devastated city of Fallujah, 50 kms west of Baghdad. The US military said that its forces and Iraqi troops had detained 1,450 people during the massive operation against insurgents in Fallujah. It also said few pockets of rebels still active in some areas of the city. AFP PHOTO/HO-MNF-I (Photo credit should read /AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Gary Anderson
Best Defense resident hawk

Many Americans are probably wondering why the United States and its vaunted airpower cannot stop the Islamic State’s seemingly inexorable march across Iraq and Syria. In a recent Washington Post op-ed article, retired Air Force General David Deptula suggested that we need more bombs. The problem is not a lack of bombs, it is a lack of identifiable targets. Rather than dispute his contention, I will try to describe the problem in terms understandable to those not familiar with the situation in the region.

Let us imagine a rebel army that is trying to overrun Washington, and suspend disbelief to a point that the United States Army and Marine Corps as presently constituted do not exist; also, to add a sectarian flavor, let us assume that the national government is dominated by blacks and the population of Northern Virginia is predominately white. All that is in place to stop this rebel force is airpower. The rebel force is infiltrating into Springfield, Virginia, from Richmond along I-95 and Route 1 to establish a base of operations. Further imagine that the insurgents are competent, experienced fighters. They are traveling in cars, busses, and trucks in the normal flow of mid-day traffic. They are well armed and fanatical.

The Air Force drone and bomber pilots sent out to stop the insurgents have total air superiority, but when they look down on the highways, all they can see is civilian vehicles. Perhaps there is an occasional military vehicle or identifiable concentration of armed men that they can target, but the defending military commanders have an unpalatable choice. They can turn I-95 and Route 1 into “highways of death” by vaporizing every vehicle traveling north, or do nothing. The pilots and commanders who authorize the wanton slaughter of civilian drivers caught in the maelstrom will face international censure and possible war crimes prosecution wanton killing of civilians. Only ground forces can identify the innocents from the enemies.

To protect Washington on the ground, the federal government has only a force of high school dropouts and indigent people with no experience in military matters. They are issued weapons and sent to the front in Springfield with little or no training. As these soldiers are heading toward the battlefield, their smart phones are flooded with messages from the rebels threatening torture and a horrible death to those who fall into rebel hands. Once they arrive in Springfield, the rebels rout the government force and make gruesome examples of the soldiers unfortunate enough to be captured.

Imagine also that some Springfield residents are so disgusted with the government that they welcome the rebels into their homes. The rebels set up a government and are smart enough not to operate from easily targeted public administrative buildings. They establish governance in hospitals, schools, and retirement homes; but they keep the patients, students, and inmates in the facilities as human shields while they fortify homes with the families inside. Military aviation planners are again faced with an unpalatable choice; level Springfield and let God sort out the victims, or do nothing except plink an occasional rebel who shows himself armed in the open.

The above describes the dilemma facing the Iraqi government and its American allies as they confront the Islamic State. We need to throw in one other factor. When the government becomes really desperate, it turns to some urban street gangs for help. These gangs hate the citizens of Springfield, and are happy to oblige. Assuming that the gangs can make headway, we again have the possibility for a humanitarian disaster as they “liberate” the town. That description equates to involving Shiite militias to invade Sunni territory. The analogy of what Iraq is dealing with is admittedly rough, but it describes the challenges that American military planners are facing in trying to help the Iraqis.  Syria is even more problematical, because we don’t like the government that the Islamic State is fighting.

Let’s take the analogy one more step. The predominately white residents of Alexandria and Arlington realize that they are the next rebel target. Although fearing the brutality of the rebels, the residents equally distrust the predominately black Washington government because it has neglected their interests and sometimes actively discriminated against them (this is a mythical analogy; it is not a knock on the Obama administration). The government has shown no real evidence of change in policy toward whites. White support is the key in saving both cities, but whites feel that they would be better treated under the brutal rebels than by the Washington government if they cooperate. That is the political dimension to the analogy; ultimately it is just as important as confronting the military threat.

The dilemma that our government and the Iraqis face is as simple as the problem is complex. If we continue to pursue the present strategy, it will take at least two years or more to build up a ground force competent to defeat the army of the Islamic State in open combat, even with Sunni support. Even then, there is no guarantee that such a force can be created absent better treatment of the Sunni population of Iraq. The risk here is that the would-be caliphate uses its sanctuary to attack the American homeland in the interim in some truly horrific way before a counter-force can be built. Then, public opinion will likely change radically; the American people will forget the previous polls and demand accountability.

The second option is to commit American ground forces which are capable of combining with airpower to defeat the Islamic State’s regular army without killing thousands of civilians; but American casualties will occur if we do so. The majority of our citizens seem to feel that enough American blood has been shed on Iraqi soil. Even if adopted, that option would only work if the Baghdad government makes a tangible and credible commitment toward Sunni civil rights to get support in that portion of Sunni populated Iraq that is not under Islamic State control already.

The options are admittedly bleak, but so is the situation. Option two will confront us eventually given the jihadist determination to do the United States harm; but we probably aren’t ready to choose it yet, and that is option is unworkable without a credible Sunni-Shiite partnership. Otherwise, we will be fighting in the region for a long time.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has extensive experience in the region and was a civilian advisor in Iraq.

AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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