The Year of Bombing Dangerously
What we’ve gained from twelve grinding months of airstrikes against the Islamic State.
In early April, eight months into the air war against Islamic State, the international coalition’s public relations team began spicing up its press releases — typically dusty reports of what’s been bombed where — with daily exhortations to victory. These encouragements — 100 or so in all to date, in the form of quotations attributed to senior commanders — veered from the barely coherent to the willfully optimistic.
“Coalition aircrew legerity underpins the success of the air campaign,” one noted, on an otherwise mundane laundry list of destroyed bunkers, command posts and vehicles. “It is the collective efforts of all nations and the power of the coalition that foreshadows the defeat of ISIL and the threat they pose,” declaimed another, with faint echoes of Cold War propaganda.
These proclamations have been mostly ignored by the journalists at the receiving end of the press releases. But their sudden appearance suggests that someone within the military feels the need to reassure the public that, despite the grinding nature of this conflict, victory is still within our sights.
We’ve become used to the U.S. and its allies winning ‘hot’ wars quickly. The Taliban fell in three months back in 2001. Saddam Hussein was crushed in weeks. Yet in Iraq today, the front line between the Islamic State and Iraqi forces has barely moved since summer 2014. Mosul, Fallujah, Hit, and Ramadi are all still occupied by the radical Islamist movement, with millions of ordinary people under its control. Further to the north, coalition officials speak of an entrenched 1,000-kilometer frontline between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State .
In Syria there has been more movement. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have enjoyed some dazzling successes following their defense of Kobani earlier this year. The Islamic State has been driven out of some areas, most recently the city of Hassakah. Yet even successes can come with unintended consequences in a war this complex: The Kurdish victories have stirred up hostility in Turkey, and there are plenty of signs that the al Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front may now be filling the void left by the Islamic State in some areas
This is not a war ending any time soon. When U.S. President Barack Obama sought fresh authorizations to use military force from Congress earlier this year, he asked for a three-year mandate to ‘degrade and defeat ISIL.’ While Congress never did get around to that authorization, the idea of a years-long war is still looking pretty accurate.
And so, with little fuss, some of those allies fighting the Islamic State are preparing for the long haul. The Netherlands recently extended its mission to October 2016. Meanwhile the British have paused plans to scrap their aging fleet of Tornado combat aircraft until spring 2017. The United Kingdom’s parliament will next month likely vote on extending airstrikes to Syria.
How, then, to sell a war with so few victories to boast of? The U.S. military in particular has fallen back on counting what it blows up. The latest CENTCOM cribsheet brags of 116 enemy tanks destroyed along with 336 Humvees — all of them American-made and paid for, and captured from the still-hopeless Iraqi Army. Elsewhere, officials insist that some 6,000 airstrikes have so far killed 15,000 enemy fighters. Considering that just a year ago, the CIA was estimating the Islamic State had as few as 20,000 irregulars, victory should be just around the corner. Or not.
Amid this endless flurry of numbers there’s one statistic the coalition really doesn’t like talking about: how many civilians it’s killed.
“We appreciate your request for an estimate of civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes, but we aren’t going to speculate on this subject,” a senior CENTCOM spokesman recently told me, via email. Despite the 17,000 bombs and missiles dropped on Iraq and Syria in the first 11 months of the campaign alone, the coalition is still admitting to just two “likely” civilian deaths.
The reality of course is very different. Airwars, an independent monitoring group I head which tracks the air war against the Islamic State, has just published a six-month investigation into alleged civilian fatalities, which places the likely baseline at 459 non-combatants killed by the coalition through the end of June.
The State Department has been more forthcoming than the Pentagon on our findings. Pushed on the gulf between claims of 2 and 459 dead civilians, a spokesman admitted to reporters: “There’s a discrepancy and we’ve noted that. That’s why we’re looking into them and trying to see where the — what the right number is, to be frank.”
Most civilian casualty claims are focused on the cities and towns of Iraq and Syria — the location of most airstrikes. “This enemy wrapped itself around a friendly population before we even started,” as one U.S. general recently noted. Or as one of those daily exhortations put it: “The Coalition continues to strike Daesh terrorists in complex and congested urban terrain in Iraq and Syria.” More civilians are certain to die over the next year as the coalition and its ground-based proxies seek to wrest control of Iraq and Syria’s larger cities away from the Islamic State. And it will be the United States which dominates that fight.
While the air war against Islamic State has been sold as an international affair, it’s the American military that is doing the heavy lifting. Some 95 percent of all airstrikes in Syria have been carried out by U.S. forces, according to the coalition. In Iraq, U.S. aircraft are responsible for two out of three attacks. And no new member has joined the international alliance since November. When Turkey began its own airstrikes against the Islamic State in July, it stayed at arms’ length from U.S.-led operations. The 12 coalition members of a year ago are starting to look more like seven today: Belgium has already officially quit the campaign, while most Arab nations — who started out as reluctant partners in the air campaign at best — transferred their attention to a separate conflict in Yemen months ago.
The stated objective of the coalition is to defeat the Islamic State, and there’s still a likely inevitability to this. With so many bombings, so many forces lost, so many supply lines cut, Islamic State is likely to fall as a quasi-nation at some point, most likely returning to its origins as an insurgent force. Yet any coalition victory won’t be tidy. Removing the Islamic State from the chaos of Iraq or Syria may simply leave a vacuum for others to fill.
In Iraq, defeat of the terrorists still risks seeing Baghdad’s Shiite-led government reinstalled as harsh overlords — one of the key reasons Sunni areas fell so swiftly to the Islamic State in the first place. Human Rights Watch and others are already warning of ethnic cleansing and worse as Shiite militias move north. For Syrians, the Islamic State is just one of the evils affecting their blighted country. A recent study by monitoring group the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that while the jihadist group had killed an estimated 945 civilians since January, more than 6,900 non-combatants were killed by the Assad regime during that same period — mostly as a result of indiscriminate airstrikes.
As the Islamic State weakens, other dark forces may simply take its place. And so any victory for the coalition — even a long-fought one — may have a bitter aftertaste.
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