As the U.S. masses air power on Iraq’s doorstep, analysts are warning that missiles and bombs will have limited impact on Islamic militants unless the Iraqi army stops running and starts fighting.
The Islamic extremists present no large targets and fight out of civilian structures, meaning Iraqi security forces must engage to flush them into the open.
The al Qaeda-linked invaders and Sunni insurgents, whose translated Arabic name is the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, showed in Syria that they fight from civilian buildings. The U.S. would try to avoid targeting such structures in Iraq.
The militants likely would hole up in civilian buildings in the captured Iraqi towns of Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar in the north, and Fallujah in the west.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked the Obama administration to order U.S. airstrikes, but whether he can get his special operations units into the war remained unclear Monday. Mr. al-Maliki’s best units are focused on surrounding Fallujah and defending Baghdad.
“Air power could provide a quick solution, but you must have Iraqi ground forces that are pressuring the ISIS forces,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. “I think that is the big unknown, and until we know what they will do to include Maliki, we have a difficult situation which should have been addressed by the administration months ago. This was no surprise when Fallujah fell six months ago.”
The Obama administration has positioned the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. The carrier brims with F-18 Hornet fighter jets that could unleash bombs and air-to-ground missiles. The Gulf also hosts surface ships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, and at least one attack submarine is likely within range.
If provoked to move, ISIL forces would present small moving targets for U.S. satellite- and infrared-guided weapons. They attack in makeshift, gun-mounted trucks and are setting up logistics lines from Syria.
“For airstrikes, you would want to have them as part of a coordinated operation, preferably with U.S. advisers working with Iraqi military commands, moving the best, most reliable and effective units into position to attack ISIS units observed with U.S. surveillance assets,” said Dakota Wood, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
“So, Iraqis provide the land combat power, orchestrated with U.S. assistance, and supported by precision fires with U.S. airstrikes,” said Mr. Wood, a retired Marine Corps officer who conducted war planning at U.S. Central Command after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Effective airstrikes, and the psychological value of knowing the U.S. is in the battle with you, has a wonderful effect on morale.”
A former U.S. defense official who advises the Iraqi government said the American military must quickly assemble some of its intelligence structure, such as unmanned aircraft and eavesdropping technology.
“The Iraqi security forces must capitalize on the opportunity provided by U.S. assistance,” the former official said. “The air campaign will be important, but it will not be decisive. It could provide the inflection needed to shift the momentum away from the ISIL, but the decisive question is whether the [security forces] will leverage the opportunity presented by the air support.”
Ken Allard, a retired Army officer and military analyst, said the first step is intelligence — an asset taken from Iraq when U.S. forces left in December 2011.
The battlefield is especially confusing, with Sunni and Shiite militias now in the fight, mixed with ISIL terrorists from various countries.
“While air power sounds like a good alternative, it is relatively useless by itself,” Mr. Allard said. “There simply aren’t enough bombs in existence to be effective without actionable intelligence to isolate and hit targets. The kinds of ‘ground forces’ there now seem like armed rabble, basically armed militias slashing away at each other.”
The Pentagon on Monday announced the latest addition to the Gulf armada: the USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious docking ship.
According to a statement from Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby on the USS Mesa Verde: “Its presence in the Gulf adds to that of other U.S. naval ships already there and provides the commander-in-chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them.”
This ship and its Osprey aircraft presumably would be used to evacuate Americans from Iraq.