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Has One Year of Bombing the Islamic State Made a Difference?

This month marks one year since a US-led coalition began bombing the Islamic State. The air strikes certainly haven't destroyed the group, but they have changed the terms of the conflict.

by Landon Shroder
Aug 21 2015, 6:45pm

Foto via Flickr / The US Army

It's been a year since the start of the US bombing campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Now known as Operation Inherent Resolve, the goal of US Central Command's aerial campaign and subsequent training mission has been to "degrade and ultimately destroy" IS. As of the end of July, nearly 20,000 airstrikes — close air support, escort, and interdiction — have been launched; about 5,200 of those involved the release of at least one weapon.

US airstrikes have hit about 10,000 different targets, killing an estimated 15,000 IS fighters. At least 62 other countries have joined in the coalition — including prominent Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates — though coalition partners have accounted for only a small portion of total airstrikes. Meanwhile, the total US presence on the ground in Iraq, filling various roles including training and support, is now up to 3,550 troops.

In total, the airstrikes have cost about $3.5 billion dollars, which is a fraction of the more than $650 billion the US Department of Defense spends annually, but a pretty hefty sum when compared to the roughly $10 billion annual Iraqi defense budget. That means that each IS fighter killed by US airstrikes has cost the US about a quarter million dollars.

So, after a year of daily airstrikes, is the Islamic State — also referred to as ISIL and ISIS— close to being defeated?

Total DaysAttack Sorties launchedAttack Sorties w/ Weapons ReleasePercent Sorties w/ Weapons ReleaseTotal Weapons ReleasedStrikes Per DayWeapons Dropped Per DayWeapons Used per Strike
Iraq 1991     43
120,00042,00035%265,0009766,1636.31Bosnia 1995     173,5152,47070%
1,026145600.42Kosovo     
7738,00414,11237%28,0181833641.99Afghanistan     7620,6006,50032%17.500862302.69Iraq 2003    2641,00015,50038%27,7005961,0391.74Libya 2011     21025,9449,70037%7,64246360.79Inherent Resolve (year one)36519,9665,19626%19,76014543.80

A comparison of US air campaigns, adapted and updated from a post by Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations

That might depend entirely on how victory is defined in the ambiguous war against IS.

"We have struck ISIL's command and control, supply lines, fighters, leaders, and military economic infrastructure," Commander Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told VICE News. "In Iraq, ISIL has lost the freedom to operate in some 30 percent of the territory they held late August [2014]."

As a result, IS can no longer start any major offensives in Iraq. While they might be able to conduct attacks against vulnerable targets, the potential to expand beyond their current sphere of influence remains limited. And because of US airstrikes, their ability to rapidly assemble and maneuver around the battlefield has been severely curtailed.

This has not only reduced their capacity to counter-attack and provide support for other besieged fighters, but has also led to significant defeats in Tikrit, Sinjar Mountain, Haditha, Kobane, and other key cities in Iraq and Syria.

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Airstrikes have their limitations, however, and must be supplemented by ground troops, which can involve anything from small counter-terrorism raids to full-fledged conventional battles. Unfortunately, with the near collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the summer of 2014, Iraqi soldiers capable of aggressively fighting IS remain in short supply.

"The ground campaign is not being led by the [coalition], and therefore they only have a supporting role in the planning," Paul Stanley, a security expert and business director for a private security company in Iraq, told VICE News. "Thus, the air campaign has the appearance of being reactive and opportunistic… but the overall impression is that they are not the force multiplier that was anticipated."

This is because IS does not play by the rules of conventional warfare, which partly explains the group's overwhelming success to date. The ISF essentially has to fight on three fronts against IS: as a conventional combat force, as a counter-terrorism force, and as a counter-insurgency force.

All of this adds up to what is commonly referred to as asymmetric or fourth-generation warfare — a style of warfare that is dependent on strategies and tactics that might favor a smaller, more adaptable force such as IS, and one that is uniquely suited to the dense urban environments where IS has entrenched itself, such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa.

"The fastest way to get more combat power against ISIS is to make it easier for the air campaign to accelerate," Mike Knights, who specializes in military and security affairs at the Washington Institute, told VICE News. "Even in their present state of dilapidation, it would make it easier for ground forces [ISF] to actually take and hold ground."

But the advantages provided by the aerial campaign can quickly become a disadvantage, as civilians risk getting caught in the fire. This has become a problem for the US, which has been extremely hesitant about acknowledging civilian casualties. The airstrike-monitoring site Airwars claims that the aerial campaign led by the US over the past year has resulted in an estimate of somewhere between 489 and 1,247 civilians killed.

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Civilian casualties, while inevitable in this kind of conflict, have been exacerbated by the lack of US presence on the battlefield. Resigned to training and support roles over the past year, US advisors are not in a position to collect intelligence on the ground or direct airstrikes in a way that might minimize civilian losses. Instead, the US has relied on training and readying the ISF to conduct these essential combat functions. So far, the 11,100-troop-strong ISF has completed unit-level training, Smith told VICE News, with many having completed some individual specialty training courses, such as sniper, mortar, engineering equipment, and counter-IED training.

Nevertheless, civilian casualties ultimately play into the long-term sectarian messaging of IS, which can exploit the narrative of Sunni civilian casualties to support its own political message — all the moreso since the US is supporting an Iraqi security apparatus that has been overtaken by Shia militia forces, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi.

Success against IS, moreover, cannot be measured purely in terms of bombs dropped or soldiers trained. While the Pentagon has communicated a tactical plan to combat IS, long-term policy objectives have not been well articulated, and that has harmed the legitimacy of the US mission in Iraq and Syria. Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, in his final press conference before leaving office, reiterated this point when speaking about Iraq.

"There's limits to military power," he said. "We've had outcomes, but they've been short-term outcomes because we haven't looked at the political and economic side."

Part of the political problem that is hindering the America's ability to defeat IS comes from a lack of acknowledgement that Iraq and Syria are now one continuous battlefield, not two adjacent countries that happen to be fighting the same enemy.

US airstrikes can target IS in either country, but where one border ends, another policy begins. Over the course of the past year, no single plan has been implemented to address the complex IS situation as a whole, and Iraq and Syria remain disconnected from each other in terms of US policy and planning. This benefits IS, which can exploit differences between the two sets of plans.

"We have been very clear that the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, and subsequently across the border into Iraq, is a major concern, as they continue to introduce new resources and fighters to battlefields in Syria and western and northern Iraq," Department of State spokesman Michael Lavallee told VICE News when asked how the US is addressing this situation.

Reducing the flow of IS fighters, however, will take a major realignment of US strategy — one that accepts the general erosion of the border between Iraq and Syria. Yet by doing so, the US will be tacitly admitting that the borders of the caliphate are real, and that will have very real political implications at home and abroad.

"ISIS is a singular enemy that is stretching across a now arbitrary border," Cory Mills, a former Army Ranger and CEO of Pacem Solutions, a defense and risk management company working in Iraq, told VICE News. "Since their ideology is global, they do not have to follow the traditional rules of war to spread the caliphate, and this presents a real problem for the US."

This is the conundrum the US faces as Operation Inherent Resolve moves into its second year, and the war against IS continues toward a stalemate.

It is unlikely that the US will augment the current strategy before the next presidential election. This gives IS time to strengthen its authority in the territories it already controls, leading to a stabilization and normalization of life under the caliphate. If this happens, it will serve to legitimize IS, which will make it much harder to defeat the group either militarily or politically.

"Time is a factor in this conflict, and we are treating it as if it is not a valuable commodity," Knights said. "We are content to go slow and treat the enemy as if time doesn't benefit them either, when in fact, it benefits them enormously."

Follow Landon Shroder on Twitter: @LandonShroder

Additional reporting by Ryan Faith

Photo via DVIDS

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