NEW YORK – The airstrikes that President Barack Obama is considering against Islamic militants in Iraq could prove as messy and inconclusive as the war the U.S. thought had ended in 2011.
Unlike the strikes that preceded the Iraq and Afghanistan ground wars, any air offensive this time would come with the support of the Iraqi government, giving the U.S. virtually complete control of the skies to curb the Sunni militants’ offensive.
Yet for all the available firepower of U.S. planes and missiles, with an aircraft carrier already in the Persian Gulf, airstrikes risk civilian casualties and may not be enough to defeat an irregular enemy moving through densely populated areas, defense analysts and administration officials said.
“One needs to be very careful about the downsides,” said Eric Edelman, a former Pentagon undersecretary for policy in President George W. Bush’s administration. Airstrikes “to be effective will require some kind of U.S. presence on the ground” to discern militant targets from civilians.
Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops back to Iraq, even as he opened the door to air attacks and increased military aid to help the Iraqi government defeat the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
“U.S. airpower could help, but we need forward air controllers on the ground to assist in the targeting process,” said retired army Col. Peter Mansoor, who helped implement the Bush administration’s surge of troops in Iraq in 2007. “So it is easier to say ‘no boots on the ground’ than to create a viable military option without them,” said Mansoor, now a professor of military history at The Ohio State University.
Secretary of State John Kerry voiced support for the possibility of airstrikes Monday in an interview with Yahoo News.
“They’re not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important to be able to stem the tide and stop the movement of people who are moving around in open convoys, in trucks, and terrorizing people,” Kerry said.
One important question for Obama to weigh is if U.S. air power is necessary to halt the ISIS advance, which appears to have slowed in recent days and so far hasn’t reached beyond majority Sunni areas where Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government is unpopular.
Colin Kahl, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who oversaw Middle East affairs at the Pentagon in Obama’s first term, said that without local support, “5,000 or 10,000 guys with guns can’t occupy and control western and northern Iraq, because we had 50,000 forces, and we couldn’t fully control” the region.
The U.S. has a formidable array of aircraft in the region. The aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, now in the Persian Gulf, has 65 aircraft on board, including 44 F/A-18 fighter-bombers and five EA-6B Prowler electronic jamming aircraft, according to navy figures.
The carrier is accompanied by the guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and destroyer USS Truxton. Both are probably equipped with the latest-model Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are capable of flying to a target, then circling in patterns so they can be re-targeted against mobile targets.
The U.S. Air Force has assets at bases in Qatar, Kuwait and other locations, including armed Reaper drones and 90 manned warplanes. The available aircraft include stealthy F-22 fighters, A-10 ground-attack aircraft, F-16 and F-15E fighter-bombers, and B-1B bombers all capable of dropping satellite- or laser-guided bombs.The Sunni regimes in the Persian Gulf have signaled their reluctance to let U.S. warplanes use bases on their soil to attack fellow Sunnis, even the extremists of ISIS, said one U.S. official Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic communications.
While the U.S. would have virtually unlimited ability to mount manned and unmanned airstrikes without significant resistance, the main obstacle to doing so remains a lack of intelligence on moving targets that in many cases are intermingled with civilians, said U.S. military and intelligence officials.
American intelligence on Iraq has eroded dramatically since Obama withdrew the last U.S. troops from the country at the end of 2011, the U.S. officials said.
Since then, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have increasingly relied on the Iraqi military and government and on public sources for reporting on Sunni insurgent groups such as ISIS and Shiite militias, most of them backed by Iran.
Many of the reports on Sunni groups have proved to be exaggerated, while those on Shiite forces and the role of Iran’s Quds Force and intelligence services in supporting them have been sketchy at best.
Further complicating matters, ISIS leaders communicate largely by couriers rather than making mobile phone calls that the U.S. National Security Agency can intercept, according to another U.S. official.
The absence of reliable intelligence, the ability of militants to retreat to civilian areas and the danger of civilian casualties that would aid ISIS’ cause have made the Obama administration wary of launching airstrikes, all of the officials said.
“Many experts noted that ISIS has few clearly discernible targets that would not risk causing civilian casualties,” wrote Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle East affairs at the Congressional Research Service, in a report to Congress.
Mistakes from the air aren’t hard to fathom, said Austin Long, a former analyst and adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps. The ISIS militants have captured American vehicles, while many former Shiite militiamen are showing up in Sunni areas to fight the militants.
“So say you get pretty good imagery off of a drone of some guys riding around in pickup trucks with AK-47s and no uniforms,” said Long, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. “Who do you bomb? You might end up bombing Iraqi troops.”
Another obstacle is political, two U.S. officials said: ISIS is shipping substantial amounts of the weapons it seized from the collapsing Iraqi military across the nonexistent border to Syria, where Obama so far has ruled out air attacks.
If Obama does decide to launch strikes, he has the legal authority to do so under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaida and related groups because ISIS is a direct descendant of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, the officials said.
Militants have gained the sympathy of some Sunnis in the northern territories who don’t “feel fully included” in al-Maliki’s government, Kiron Skinner, a defense fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, said in an interview.
“You can’t underestimate the power of local support” so “that’s why you got a relatively small band of people doing enormous damage,” said Skinner, who was a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “There’s local support and lack of legitimacy in the central government.”
Whatever Obama decides, none of his options are good, said Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University.
“There are probably military options that could stave off the collapse of the Iraqi government,” said Feaver, a former special adviser for strategic planning on Bush’s National Security Council. “But is President Obama inclined to run the risks associated with them, and can he mobilize public support for them? Those are more difficult hurdles for him to overcome.”