Stories on President Obama’s strategy-for-the-Islamic-State speech this evening have made it plain that the military approach is going to be a combination of U.S. airpower and various Iraqi and Syrian proxies on the ground. “Obama’s ISIL Strategy to Emphasize Coalition Effort,” headlines RealClearPolitics.
Since the administration repeatedly has drawn a “red line” on U.S. “boots on the ground,” this comes as no surprise. But it will come at a cost, measured primarily in time but also perhaps in terms of mission failure. There are limits to what American airpower can achieve, particularly when applied in penny-packets and under operational constraints. And there are also lots of limits to what the on-the-ground members of any coalition can accomplish.
Since announcing its commitment to deal seriously with the Islamic State, the administration has steered well clear of anything that might carry the sulfurous smell of George Bush and Operation Iraqi Freedom. So whatever “air campaign” may unfold, it isn’t going to be of the shock and awe variety. What we’re likely to see is a continuous set of precision pinpricks delivered from drones, cruise missiles, or carrier aircraft. There will need to be “surges” of airpower in the event that Kurdish or Iraqi forces are in position to try to retake any of the urban areas held by IS forces – in the case of Mosul, a city of three-quarters of a million people, that would be a very substantial surge. It’s not that there can be a carpet-bombing of IS positions; fear of collateral damage and civilian casualties would be high. But there would be a constant need for on-call fire support – and, for U.S. “advisers” to make those calls.
The requirements for airpower would metastasize were the campaign to include Syria, or, perhaps more properly, when it does. If carrier air were employed – and the Navy’s F/A-18s would be the most flexible platforms for the job, at least until the Marines start using the F-35s they’ve got – covering both Iraq and Syria would probably require keeping a carrier in the Persian Gulf and one in the Mediterranean. That’s really all the entire U.S. Navy could sustain over an extended period of time, and the administration has floated the prospect of a three-year campaign. So much for that “Pacific Pivot.” And that’s assuming there won’t be a paralyzing paranoia about sending pilots into harm’s way. Who remembers Scot O’Grady? The IS videographers surely do.
The on-the-ground, “coalition” order of battle is likewise limited. The most useful and powerful partner would be Turkey, but Secretary of State John Kerry got the brush-off from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the other day. To begin with, IS fighters nabbed a gaggle of Turkish diplomats (and, no doubt, intelligence operatives) when they seized Mosul, making the Turkish domestic politics of coalition participation even more delicate. More deeply, Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy, though a failure, has driven Turkey’s strategy in the Syria war, providing a rationale for taking in an enormous number of refugees and keeping the border open to resupply Syrian rebels – including the rebels formerly known as ISIS.
The Iraqi Kurds and Sunni sheiks of western Iraq are more politically promising partners, if only because they have no place else to turn. Although both have been sold out by the United States before, they have most to gain by even an Obama-style recommitment. Alas, the pesh merga and the Anbari tribal militias are ill-prepared to conduct the kind of fight that defeating the IS forces would demand. It would take quite a while for them to acquire such firepower, mobility, mass or logistical ability to sustain operations. And, if they did get such capabilities, that would shift the military balance within Iraq.