The United States is conducting air operations to stop ISIS on two fronts. First, it’s destroying hard targets in Syria to disrupt the safe haven the group has created there. Second, American planes are acting as air support to the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi troops.
The problem is no one is sure that this plan – especially the plan in Iraq - will work. This raises the question of how long the campaign will last, how much it would cost, and whether is can be successful without American boots on the ground directing operations.
The reason is simple: without American support, there is no guarantee that the right targets are being hit or that actual members of ISIS are being killed, said Steven Bucci, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The strikes in Syria, the strategic booming campaign, is the equivalent of bombing Germany during World War II,” he said, referring to the attempted and successful destruction of German infrastructure. “That requires info from people on the ground or drone flights.”
In Iraq, however, gathering intelligence is much more complicated. Publicly, the Pentagon has categorically denied that there are U.S. forces engaged in combat (some reports suggest otherwise).
Bucci said that to truly know if the strikes are effective, American eyes must be on targets. He said that the model used in 2001 in Tora Bora, where the U.S. decimated much of the Taliban while failing to kill Osama bin Laden, is the right model to defeat ISIS.
There, Special Forces and CIA operatives fought alongside and collaborated with the Northern Alliance, a group that had been battling the Taliban for years. American forces on the ground were able to direct war plans to specific targets, routing the Taliban and narrowly missing bin Laden.
Bucci sees the same opportunity in Iraq, except on a larger scale.
“We need people on the ground with binoculars and targets you can call in air support on. There is a massive rolling ground war going on. It doesn’t do you any good to hit the targets if you’re not moving troops to [secure] those targets,” he said.
“This is not a gigantic industrialized country that we’re fighting,” Bucci added. “It’s an ad hoc group that’s created a de facto country.”
Too Little, Too Late?
Christian Whiton, a former Bush administration State Department senior adviser, said that it might be too late to shift strategy in a way that could stop the group.
“The intelligence bureaucracy put ISIS strength at up to 31,000 a few weeks ago. Indications are they are actually growing. Despite the bombings, ISIS still has the initiative causing 150,000 refugees to flee into Turkey in just the last week. Even several hundred sorties won’t stop this without a ground game. Furthermore, a massive, Desert Storm-like bombing campaign [shock and awe] would only make ISIS shift from open operations to insurgency mode.”
He added that the best strategy might be a face-saving one that reflects a new dynamic in the Middle East.
“We need to resolve to raise secular-leaning Sunni armies in Syria and Iraq, ask the Gulf states to sponsor and support the new nations these armies will create, emplace special forces so we have influence and intelligence on the ground, and accept that Syria and Iraq as we have known them are gone forever,” he said.
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