As Iraq and Syria Islamic State (ISIS) insurgent forces advance on Baghdad, some American political leaders, led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have urged that the United States begin airstrikes immediately to stop the growing unrest in Iraq. Although air power may be the only expedient and politically acceptable option, there are several reasons why that all-too-familiar impulse to use our asymmetric advantage in airpower will not defeat ISIS.
In fact, history is almost devoid of examples of air power—when used alone—achieving anything resembling a decisive result. The 1999 NATO punitive bombing operation against Serbia stands as one of the only successful uses of air power alone in achieving a stated political objective.
History’s one example of such success embodies two lessons that can be drawn for comparison with the situation in Iraq/Syria. First, in the self-declared ISIS there is no recognized government that can be coerced into negotiation. That suggests that complete annihilation of the group will be necessary to return control to the Iraqi government. Which leads to the second point: Even if air power can achieve a measure of success, securing the peace after ISIS forces are defeated will require boots on the ground. Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, stated on National Public Radio’s 16 June evening news program that “Iraq does not want, or need U.S. boots on the ground. . . . Iraq will provide the soldiers.” He went on to say that what Iraq needs to prevent what would be “one thousand [Osama] Bin Ladens” setting up camp in Iraq is U.S. “air supremacy, training, and assistance.”
The ISIS insurgents probably do not care that the United States moved another carrier strike group (CSG) into the Persian Gulf. If the United States can sort out the complex situation and actually determine what targets to hit in the dense ISIS-ontrolled urban territory, the mufti-clad insurgents will only hug the civilian population closer. Sorting out the bad guys will be a daunting task from 10,000 feet.
Our regional allies and the American public may appreciate the gesture of an extra CSG, but lawless insurgents are concerned only with local optics. Back to Kosovo, it was only when NATO realized that stopping a few Serbian military forces in Kosavar villages armed with cans of gasoline and a pack of matches was a tough mission for an F-15 that they began picking off important economic and infrastructure targets. It was then that the Serbian government agreed to negotiations. One must wonder of the wanna-be nation of ISIS: What are the economic and infrastructure targets that matter to a terrorist-led group that longs for the good old days of A.D. 900?
Finally, the most popular counter-factual argument being voiced by pundits is that if the United States had left a counterterrorism task force in Iraq, then crisis either wouldn’t have happened (because the insurgents would have feared the U.S. military), or the insurgents could have been easily defeated. If that is valid, then why is the flow of foreign fighters and motivated insurgents still a problem in Afghanistan? And why did it remain a persistent problem throughout our seven-plus years in Iraq? We have total air supremacy in Afghanistan and had it in Iraq, but that did not yield a decisive victory in either conflict. Air power alone did not win those wars—why then would it win this one?
The urge for the United States to apply some measure of expressive power is understandable, and assuming it can find someone or something worth blowing up, that is arguably the correct response. However, if the United States and its allies wish to preserve the shape of the world as depicted in the map that Sykes-Picot drew in 1916, a much larger and far more costly commitment to defeating ISIS will be required. Perhaps our ability to provide responsive air power is the best way to buy time for the reeling Iraqi government and security forces to catch their breath and prepare for the counteroffensive.