(Air) Striking the Right Balance in Iraq

August 20, 2014

As the forces of the Islamic State (IS) have solidified their gains after declaring the establishment of a new caliphate and are now conducting spectacular attacks in Baghdad, threatening Kurdish controlled areas, targeting minorities, and creating a humanitarian crisis, President Obama has approved air strikes in an attempt to stem the tide of their advance. The air strikes are a viable, albeit limited, option that have the potential to achieve three objectives: destroy IS forces, leadership, and materiel; disrupt the current offensive and prevent the massacre of innocent civilians; and boost morale within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the peshmerga. Tactically, they can also offer decisive support to forces on the ground engaged in key missions, as they appear to have done in the fight to recapture the Mosul Dam.

The terrorist group that has been fighting against the Assad regime in Syria and conducting attacks within Iraq has matured into a formidable regional insurgency. While IS continues to conduct bombings in Baghdad and other major cities across the country as it has done for years, it now seeks to augment its violence by providing a viable alternative to the Iraqi government, administering governance in captured cities. In areas under its control such as Raqqa in Syria, IS continues to dole out brutal punishments for violating its extreme interpretation of sharia, but now also provides health and welfare services, public works, and even a rudimentary form of consumer protection. Perhaps most concerning, whereas earlier recruiting focused on calling for believers to wage violent jihad and become martyrs—jihadists have even adapted the Internet slang YOLO, using YODO (You Only Die Once) in online forums and twitter feeds to encourage martyrdom operations—IS is now encouraging like-minded extremists to flock to the newly established caliphate to live and join the new society.

IS has used these tactics to advance and shore up the gains from its offensive in Iraq, effectively seizing control of large swathes of land and population centers in the western and northern regions of the country. Fighting in unconventional formations in urban areas, and without standardized military uniforms or equipment, makes IS forces extremely difficult to distinguish from civilians and other pro-government irregular militias. The group did reap a windfall of heavy weapons and vehicles after routing the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division, but the bulk of the IS fighters in Iraq are still fighting with small arms instead of tanks. Because of their ability to blend in with the population in urban areas, it is nearly impossible to differentiate between friendly forces, enemy forces, and civilians without reliable forces on the ground to provide positive identification. Even with observers on the ground, the inherently dispersed nature of IS’s fighters precludes air strikes from significantly degrading the military capabilities and forces of IS. As the United States has learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan, air power cannot destroy insurgencies, nor will it destroy IS.

However, air strikes can be used effectively to disrupt IS’s current offensive. Even without observers on the ground to identify IS targets and call in air strikes, armed drones can be employed to conduct limited, targeted strikes. While targeting IS fighters once they enter into an urban area poses a formidable challenge for identification, Iraq’s geography and terrain combine to present opportunities to conduct strikes as they move across the open desert that separates urban centers. Identifying and tracking targets transiting this rural space can allow for strikes away from civilians or non-military infrastructure. So-called “signature strikes” have been utilized for years to target militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and can be similarly used against IS.

Targeting IS on the vast, open road networks that link Iraq’s cities can also help mitigate accusations of unreasonable collateral damage and civilian casualties, such as those that have accompanied drone strikes in Pakistan’s rural villages. Although these strikes would likely not be enough to defeat IS, they could retard the current advance toward Baghdad by compelling its forces to move around the country in a much slower and deliberate manner to avoid aerial bombardment. This would give the ISF much-needed time and space to regroup and prepare a counter-offensive to recapture occupied cities. It would also deal a great blow to morale amongst both the IS rank and file and its leadership. As was demonstrated during the “Shock and Awe” campaign in Iraq in 2003, as well as by the numerous wars fought in the Middle East since 1967—and as even Osama bin Laden noted—air strikes can be crippling not only because of their destructive power, but also because of their psychological impact.

Furthermore, air strikes’ psychological impact extends beyond our adversaries to our allies, as well. Just as the use of American air power bolstered the confidence of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance members fighting alongside U.S. Special Forces against the Taliban in 2001, so would it strengthen the morale within the ranks of ISF and aid in preventing further mass desertions like those seen in Kirkuk and Mosul. Even without dropping munitions, flyovers—so called “shows of force”—can act as a tangible demonstration of America’s continued commitment to the Iraqi military that it spent years training and equipping at great expense. Air strikes would also boost confidence in Amman that the United States would come to its aid should IS turn its sights towards Jordan, one of our most reliable allies in the region. All of this can be accomplished with very limited air strikes and low risk of collateral damage.

However, it is important to remember that air strikes do not come without risk. Although suicide bombers have accounted for more civilian deaths than drone strikes in Pakistan, the popular narrative is that American drones senselessly slaughter innocents, which has contributed immeasurably to militant recruiting. IS’s savvy propaganda and social media arm is likely to employ the same tactics successfully, given existing anti-American sentiment within certain segments of Iraq’s population. Air strikes also risk alienating Iraq’s Sunni population, some of whom may only be siding with IS as the lesser of two evils, after years of continued disenfranchisement from the Shia-dominated government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It is an equally reasonable possibility that a drone could be shot down or, more likely, crash, as has happened more than 400 times since 2001. Without combat troops on the ground to recover the downed aircraft, it would be necessary to destroy their remnants in order to prevent sensitive technology from falling into the hands of adversarial countries, most notably Iran. Manned aircraft would likely be required to accomplish this task, as drones typically do not carry enough ordnance to ensure the total destruction of sensitive equipment. This could in turn put American service members at risk, especially in light of the potential proliferation of Libyan surface-to-air missilesto Syria. Furthermore, should an American aircraft be shot down or simply crash, the pilots are unlikely to receive the same warm treatment as Major Kenneth Harney and Captain Tyler Stark, whose plane crashed while conducting operations over Libya in March 2011. A worst-case scenario would be the capture of pilots by IS, which then draws the United States into a potentially catastrophic crisis reminiscent of the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in the early 1990s. These are credible potential consequences associated with air strikes, regardless of how carefully they are planned and executed.

While conducting air strikes poses real risks, however, the alternative is far worse. Left unchecked, IS has the potential to extend its area of control and establish a safe haven in a region that straddles the border of two unstable countries—just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1990s, which allowed al Qaeda to plan, train for, and launch attacks against the United States and its allies. To be sure, air strikes alone will not prevent this terrifying possibility from becoming a reality. The United States needs a comprehensive strategy that includes using all available means to pressure Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi to form a new government that is inclusive of, and accepted by, Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, addresses legitimate grievances, and gives Iraqis confidence by codifying a power-sharing agreement. This must be drafted in such a way that prevents any of the three parties from legally disenfranchising the others, as occurred under outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The United States should also re-engage with the ISF and peshmerga to provide additional training, advising, and assistance, specifically aimed at undoing the politicization that has occurred within its ranks during the three years since the withdrawal of U.S. forces. This would require more “boots on the ground,” which President Obama seems reticent to commit. However the president can credibly do this without violating his promise that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq” by emphasizing that these would strictly be trainers and advisers, not troops conducting combat operations. Critics will justifiably invoke the argument that more troops inevitably invites “mission creep” towards combat operations, since the lines between support and combat forces are blurred when fighting against an insurgency. This criticism may have already gained momentum last week, when special operations forces and Marines conducted a reconnaissance, billed as an “assessment,” of the IS siege against Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar. But with a clear strategy and a willingness to learn lessons from the past, mission creep can be avoided. Furthermore, additional training and advising can provide the ISF with the tools necessary not only to beat back the current IS assault, but also to reduce Iraq’s dependence on U.S. assistance in the face of future threats.

Air strikes and deployment of tactical advisors, as well as much-desired arms sales, can all be used as leverage to encourage Iraqi leaders to make the necessary political reforms. While Iran may offer ground forces to temporarily prevent the fall of Baghdad, Karbala, and al-Najaf, its assistance will not address the root causes of unrest, which will continue to threaten stability. While it appears that the Sunni tribes have either actively encouraged or passively accepted IS’s presence, genuine political outreach and concessions could spark another awakening.

There are no ideal options available for dealing with the current crisis in Iraq. But the least desirable of these options would be to risk ceding what little influence America still has in Iraq to Iran through indecision or worse yet, to stand idly by while the Iraqi state collapses under the weight of sectarian civil war. Allowing IS to continue expanding its influence within Iraq will result in increased instability and a growing terrorist safe haven, which will only grow more difficult to eliminate and will have serious ramifications for the United States, its interests, and its allies.


Michael McBride is a former Ranger and Army Infantry Officer with multiple deployments in the Global War on Terror. He currently works as a consultant for Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.