Why American Air Power Won't Save Iraq from ISIS

"Ultimately, the only way to decisively weaken ISIS would be for moderate Sunni groups to turn against it."

President Obama’s Thursday speech outlining America’s response to the situation in Iraq alluded to the possibility of an expanded U.S. role there, which could involve some form of aerial support to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) fighting on the ground against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other Sunni Arab insurgents. The coordination of air power and Iraqi allies on the ground (perhaps with a limited presence of American Special Operations Forces) would mirror U.S. interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011. The principal objective of a limited aerial intervention in Iraq would be to provide battlefield support to ISF to change the dynamics on the ground, decisively halting ISIS’s offensive and reversing its recent territorial gains. While this approach was tactically and operationally successful in Afghanistan and Libya, its long-term strategic benefits in those cases are more uncertain. There is no reason to expect that a similar intervention in the unfolding crisis in Iraq will further long-term American strategic interests—even if it achieves limited tactical successes.

At first glance, Iraq would seem to be an ideal setting for reenacting the Afghan/Libyan model. As it did in Afghanistan and Libya, airpower could have a decisive impact on the outcome of what are essentially conventional battles between Sunni insurgents and ISF. However, a closer look at those cases does not provide much ground for optimism. First, the antigovernment forces would adapt their tactics in response to American airpower and thus make it less effective. Similar to the response of Qaddafi’s forces to NATO bombing, ISIS and its allies would eschew massing their forces in the open in conventional formations (thus posing as targets for American precision bombs); their forces would instead disperse, take cover and conceal, which would significantly reduce their vulnerability from airpower, without necessarily ending their offensive. This tactical adjustment would not necessarily allow the insurgents to hold on to their newly conquered territory indefinitely. As the Libya case clearly shows, a prolonged intervention with precision airpower in conjunction with local ground forces can weaken and help overcome local opponents through attrition. With sufficient time, airstrikes would enable ISF to defend the territory it currently holds and even reclaim territory lost to ISIS forces.

A key point, though, is that U.S. intervention from the air will not bring about these results quickly. Indeed, the NATO operation in Libya took far longer and involved significantly more firepower than the allies initially anticipated. A few pinprick attacks are unlikely to alter the trajectory on the ground; and a more sustained military campaign would require firm American political will—something that may not be in the cards.

Second (and more crucial), in response to a successful counteroffensive on the part of the Iraqi government, supported by U.S. airpower, ISIS would certainly switch to the kind of guerrilla tactics in which it proved so proficient in the past (just as the Taliban did after its early defeat in 2001). In this scenario, ISIS and other insurgent groups, benefiting from the support of significant segments of Iraq’s Sunni population, could sustain a high-intensity guerrilla campaign against the Iraqi government for a long period of time. This reinvigorated insurgency may make the year preceding the insurgent “surge” (with hundreds of terrorist and hit-and-run attacks and over 1,000 deaths a month) look like a period of relative stability. Thus, an aerial intervention would not provide a lasting solution; at best, it would merely push ISIS and the broader Sunni resistance back to the position they were in just some months ago.

At its heart, the crisis in Iraq stems from an underlying political problem that military means alone cannot address. Namely, Maliki’s ethnosectarian policies—in particular, the systematic marginalization and humiliation of the Sunni minority—have provided fertile ground for the growth of several insurgent organizations (some Baathist, some Jihadist) claiming the mantle of defenders of Iraq’s beleaguered Sunnis. An American intervention would reduce Maliki’s incentive to institute the much-needed political reforms that would give the country’s Sunni community a stake in the future of the country. Put simply, this is an ethnosectarian war (with an important transnational Islamist component) whose long-term solution won’t be brought about from 15,000 feet in the air.

One might object to this noninterventionist approach, pointing to a series of negative consequences that may result. These concerns are not baseless, but either rest on implausible worst-case-scenario assumptions, or identify risks and costs that could only be avoided by taking even riskier and costlier courses of action.