Thursday, October 09, 2014

Mailing it In

The problem in dealing with ISIL isn't just that air power alone can't defeat an enemy, it's that we aren't even trying hard enough to win via air power alone.

I find this Pentagon defense of our use of ineffective force around Kobani just astounding:

ADM. KIRBY: I didn't say that it wasn't important. I mean, any time that -- let's -- let's just take a couple of steps back, because it's not just about Kobani. You're seeing them try to retake or take new territory in Al-Anbar province. We believe that they're largely in control of the town of Hit right now, which is not that far from Fallujah and Ramadi, and Fallujah and Ramadi are not that far from Baghdad. And we seem to have forgotten about that.

They try to grab ground and territory where they can, where they believe it's important. Now, I don't know what importance they attach to Kobani. What I'm telling you is, rather than say what we're not going to do, let me tell you what we are going to do, and that's to take a regional approach here.

So it's easy to get fixated on one town, but I think it's really important for you and for the American people to take a couple of steps back here and look at the larger regional context within -- within which this fight is being made. And the longer-term strategic objectives that we and our coalition members are trying to apply here.

We are not going to be able -- you know, it's interesting. I mean, we're being asked about why we're not or why we won't or why we can't save Kobani. And we're not being asked those same questions about towns inside Iraq. And I don't know why that is, other than maybe there's real-time footage coming out of Kobani or what the difference is. [emphasis added]

Are you kidding me? A defense of a failure to apply more than token air strikes against ISIL around Kobani is that we also aren't doing much about cities in Iraq that are under attack? Really?

Many people have noted that air power is unlikely to stop ISIL. That's true enough. And ineffective use of force against ISIL is just going to let them take ground and take the credit for doing so despite our intervention. So this is counter-productive use of force.

Consider our air campaign across Iraq and now Syria against ISIL. As of October 1:

U.S. and partner nation attack aircraft have flown over 1,700 strike sorties in support of operations against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria using over 800 munitions against 322 targets.

That's clearly not just strike sorties, but supporting aircraft as well. Otherwise you have to say that each "strike" sortie carried less than half of a munition. So this is inflating our strike sorties which is actually in the low hundreds. Not that the supporting aircraft aren't very important. They just aren't pulling triggers.

That's 7 weeks of strikes.

Here's a map of them through October 7 for your information:

Consider our 11-week (78-day) 1999 air campaign against Serbia over Kosovo:

During ALLIED FORCE, NATO aircrews flew 38,004 sorties, 10,484 of which were strike sorties.

That's a war that air power proponents claim was won from the air alone. That's debatable. I think the Serbs had to worry about a ground invasion. You can say that the West wouldn't have gone in, but the Serbs saw our troops deploying to the region. And the Serbs had to worry about our special forces on the ground helping the Kosovo rebels.

You can also point out the Serbian army's rapid march out of Kosovo when the war ended showed that our air power did not hurt their army that much.

But you can debate it. Although if you conclude air power alone won that war, you have to admit that jihadis are probably made of sterner (death-welcoming) stuff than European Serbs.

Even if you conclude that air power won that war, look at the scale.

On one day we flew nearly 900 sorties--more than half of what we had carried out against ISIL over the larger area of Iraq and Syria--against enemy targets.

So we don't even need to debate the question of whether air power alone can defeat ISIL. We aren't carrying out an air effort against ISIL large enough to even test that question.

Mind you, I'm not saying that we should bomb at Kosovo rates. One, we still had lots of dumb bombs then. Two, and more important, we probably don't have many targets that we can identify and bomb from the air.

But that reinforces the point that we need to have ground support rather than strategic bombing against ISIL.

Now, I appreciate the request of Admiral Kirby to see the big picture on this issue. If we are operating on my Win-Build-Win premise, getting prematurely involved inside Syria is a mistake (this doesn't address the meager effort in Iraq) if it strengthens Assad.

Of course, this is a problem that we face because we failed to address the separate problems of Iraq and Syria before those problems grew into the single ISIL threat we have today.

But more immediately, failing to help the Kurdish people on the ground under threat by ISIL damages our reputation and reasons for intervening to stop ISIL. Is it or isn't it based on stopping ISIL from slaughtering civilians? (Or captured soldiers.)

Letting Kobani fall to ISIL and seeing a slaughter of Kurds could weaken our effort to recruit Syrians for the 5,000-man force we want to train and arm to fight ISIL in Syria, don't you think?

It also harms our efforts to gain Kurdish support in Iraq. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq won't want to be our ground force if we don't help their brethren in Syria.

After all, we already see Turkey's Kurds getting upset with Turkey's refusal to do anything to save Kobani. Turkey only recently suppressed the long-running Kurdish insurrection inside Turkey. Why should Iraq's Kurds be immune to that motivation?

For real laughs, consider that Syria's Kurds have been an odd-man out in the Syrian civil war, seeking mostly to just hunker down and ride out the intra-Arab fighting. Will the need to survive ISIL's onslaught drive the Syrian Kurds into an alliance with Assad--the only power that may be willing to help them?

And half-hearted intervention with box-checking air strikes is even worse than doing nothing to save Kobani. We get all the problems noted above of failing to save Kobani, plus we get the black eye of allowing ISIL to claim they defeated us, too, since we intervened.

As I said, I can't rule out whether our war against ISIL will be counter-productive and produce more jihadis than it kills.

But so far our war without a name isn't really a war as much as it is a spasm of occasional kinetic activity.

UPDATE: Strategypage notes the incredibly small nature of our strikes and points out one big reason for our hesitation to strike:

The air campaign against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has not been extensive enough to stop ISIL from moving around and attacking. American and other Western nations can use air bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) so there is no shortage of bases, or aircraft. There is a shortage of aggressiveness based on a fear of civilian casualties that would be used by ISIL to generate more public support in Moslem countries. The cult of victimization in the Islamic (especially the Arab) world ensures that any Moslem civilians killed by non-Moslems is heavily criticized. ...

Because of the fear of civilian casualties the air operations against ISIL have lots of restrictions on them and that means the approval of senior political or military leaders before targets can be hit. Thus ISIL knows that if they keep moving they will likely not be attacked from the air. ISIL can be seen exploiting this in western Iraq (Anbar province) where convoys of ISIL fighters appear to operate with impunity by constantly moving and hitting government troops and towns controlled by Sunni tribes hostile to ISIL.

Reports that we don't have targets to strike reflect that we don't have targets we can strike under our restrictive rules.

The rules (and hence the pace and type of strikes) won't change until ISIL makes further advances. Or perhaps one big public slaughter of civilians will do the trick.