By Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan
Air operations in Iraq and Syria have not stopped the advance of Islamic State. Despite the bombing, it has launched offensives in Iraq, gaining new ground in Anbar Province, and it has continued its offensive in Syria.
The desultory bombing mission — far too limited to merit being called an air campaign — has no chance of enabling local allies to eliminate Islamic State sanctuaries.
It may not even be enough to keep Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from expanding. After 50 days of obvious failure, it's time to consider an approach that might work: Get American special forces on the ground with the Sunni Arabs themselves. The only other alternative is to resign ourselves to living with an al-Qaida state and army.
Islamic State seized the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 10 with a multipronged assault. The offensive continued over days, destroying two Iraqi army divisions and driving on toward Baghdad. The Iranian military responded with advisers on June 12. The U.S. took no action until Aug. 8, dropping a small number of bombs to allow besieged Yazidis to escape from certain death on Mount Sinjar.
The U.S. has hit 334 mostly tactical targets in Syria and Iraq. To put that in perspective, the 76-day air campaign that toppled the Taliban in 2001 dropped 17,500 munitions on Afghanistan.
Those bombs directly aided the advance of thousands of Afghan fighters supported by U.S. special operators capable both of advising them and of identifying and designating targets to hit. There are no U.S. special operators on the ground in Iraq or Syria, no pre-planned or prepared advance of Iraqi security forces, and no allies on the ground in Syria. This is not an air campaign.
Islamic State is an adaptable, smart enemy, and its fighters are dispersed through population centers, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 of them controlling an area the size of Maryland. Hitting a series of fixed targets such as bases and destroying small concentrations of vehicles will not defeat it. Rather, enabling the air campaign to do meaningful damage to the Islamic State army requires putting some U.S. troops into the Sunni Arab areas that Islamic State now holds. Special forces serving as forward air controllers can direct air strikes to meaningful targets that are not observable by satellite and overflight.
Success against Islamic State requires such deployments for an even more important reason: The Sunni Arabs are essential allies for turning the tide against Islamic State and ousting it from the urban centers it controls. As long as it can convince or terrify Sunni populations into sheltering its fighters, no amount of air power will defeat the organization. Islamic State terrifies communities by inflicting horrific atrocities on those who resist to deter others from joining them. Communities will only resist, therefore, when they are confident they will win. This makes changing the correlation of forces village by village essential to depriving Islamic State of its sanctuary.
But Islamic State also gains the toleration of Sunni communities that believe they are threatened by something even worse. Bashar Assad's Alawite-controlled military has used chemical weapons, mass starvation, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and denial of drinking water to kill hundreds of thousands of mostly Sunni Syrians. Syria's Sunnis are unlikely to be eager to fight ISIS if it seems likely to empower Assad.
There is no guarantee that sending U.S. special forces in will turn the tide, while it is certain they will take casualties. The Obama administration is making an argument for patience that is superficially appealing: Let's give the air campaign time to work, the Iraqi security forces time to improve and the Syrian opposition time to develop.
The trouble is that the trend lines aren't going in the right direction. The air campaign is not working, and U.S. efforts to help the Iraqi security forces and train Syrian oppositionists are moving at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to work with local Sunni populations against Islamic State grows more likely to close as it continues its campaign of terror and assassination. And U.S. air operations that seem to support Assad's troops and Iraq's Shiite militias are already feeding a narrative that America is backing the Iranians and the Shiites against the Arabs and the Sunnis. Allowing that narrative to take deep root could alienate the very people we most need as allies.
Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War.
Los Angeles Times