Would US air strikes work against Iraq insurgents?

President Obama has few options as Iraq insurgents move toward Baghdad. Air strikes are one possibility. But their effectiveness might be limited without boots on the ground.

Karim Kadim/AP
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the northwest Baghdad's Shula neighborhood, Iraq, on Monday.

President Obama has a meeting with top lawmakers Wednesday as he weighs whether to launch air strikes against Islamic militants who are bearing down on Baghdad.                  

Calls for air strikes have been growing increasingly robust, particularly from Capitol Hill, but some former defense officials have countered that the chances of civilian casualties and other miscalculations are too great if the US military launches such strikes without boots on the ground to provide intelligence and keep civilians safe.

So, can the US military launch effective air strikes without troops on the ground? “Of course you can,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and a former F-15 fighter jet pilot. Air strikes without US boots on the ground have been used effectively in a number of recent US conflicts, he says.

Yet “one needs to be very careful about the downsides,” warned Eric Edelman, former Pentagon undersecretary for policy in the George W. Bush administration, in an interview with Bloomberg News, adding that effective air strikes “require some kind of US presence on the ground.”

Whether boots on the ground are critical, analysts say, hinges on what the air strikes will be used to do. 

Secretary of State John Kerry has come out in favor of such air strikes. “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,” he told Yahoo News Tuesday.

The “moving around in open” space point is key here, Mr. Deptula notes. Air strikes without boots on the ground could prove effective against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) fighters, who tend to mass in formation more than, say, Taliban fighters or the Iraqi militias that US troops once fought in the streets of Baghdad.

If the US military was interested in routing ISIS troops from the cities they have already occupied, however, including Fallujah and Mosul, air strikes without US boots on the ground would risk civilian casualties. 

The key question is to what end the US government would use these strikes. They are not likely, for example, to inspire Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – whose sectarian agenda has contributed to the breakdown of the country’s social fabric – “to create a Jeffersonian democracy,” Deptula says.

“We do have the fiercest, strongest military in the world,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) of Hawaii, and a combat veteran, told CNN. “We also have a responsibility to be very careful about how and where we use that military force. It is not in our US interest to go and involve ourselves in the middle of what is a religious civil war.” 

Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called on Mr. Obama to use air strikes to stop the ISIS advance towards Baghdad, warning that if they are permitted to continue their expansion, Syria and Iraq could become “the staging area for the next 9/11.” 

ISIS fighters currently number fewer than 10,000, according to Pentagon estimates. As they move toward Baghdad, Iraqi security forces have been “stiffening their resistance” to ISIS and “have the will to defend the capital,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters in a briefing Tuesday.

The aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush has 65 aircraft on board, including F-18 fighter jets and electronic jamming aircraft. In its carrier strike group, it is accompanied by the USS Philippine Sea and the destroyer USS Truxton, both of which are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

Still, some lawmakers are pushing back against any US military aid to Iraq. “They wouldn’t sign an agreement. They don’t want us there,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (R) of Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee last week. “We’re cutting our military. It’s not good to start new adventures around the world.” 

Not even US military air strikes to stop an ISIS advance? “They all cost money, right?” Representative McKeon said, noting that cuts in the Defense budget have also cut training time for US forces. “They all put people at risk. And we’re not getting the flying hours now, to be up to snuff. Why do we want to risk our people?”

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