The limits of air strikes in Iraq

Robert Scales, a retired Army major general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, argues that an air campaign against ISIS is destined to fail. At first, it will probably set ISIS back, but before long the fighters will adapt. They will make targets more difficult to locate from the air and hide them (and themselves) in populated areas.

Scales concludes:

As the enemy grows more skilled, we will be left with two unattractive alternatives: Escalate until tragedy occurs [e.g. captured Americans and/or bombing of innocent civilians] or accept battlefield stasis until the American people tire of these “targeted strikes.”

And when we fly away with the Islamic State still dominant on the battlefield, the terrorists will proclaim to the world that the United States is a cowardly country that has been beaten again.

Scales may well be right about the diminishing returns of a bombing campaign. But if, as Scales suggests, a bombing campaign makes ISIS more cautious and drives its fighters back into towns they already hold, the blitzkrieg will have been halted.

Until now, ISIS has been rampant. A bombing campaign that halts its progress and achieves a “battlefield stasis” would represent progress. And the American people are unlikely to tire of “targeted strikes” against this kind of enemy, provided no tragedy occurs.

It would be better, of course, to defeat ISIS and/or roll it back. But that will take an army.

The Kurds have an army. With strong U.S. air support, they may be well be able to protect their regional border. However, the Kurds won’t be pushing ISIS out of Fallujah or Tikrit.

Nor, as things stand now, will the Iraqi army. Obama has expressed the hope that, with a new, more inclusive government, Sunnis will join the fight against ISIS. As I have suggested, that may be wishful thinking.

According to the Washington Post, “regional experts” say that getting Sunnis to take up arms against ISIS fighters on behalf of a central government still dominated by Shiites “could take years.” It seems to me that without a substantial number of U.S. troops fighting alongside the Iraqis — as during the 2007 surge — it may never happen.

Obama seems dead set against deploying a substantial number of troops to fight in Iraq. Thus, battlefield stasis seems like the best he (and we) can hope for.

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