With Limited Gains, U.S. Bombing Campaign Faces Growing Criticism

Oct 30, 2014
Originally published on October 30, 2014 2:25 pm

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been on the defensive recently about the strategy to take on the Islamic State. American warplanes have been bombing targets in Iraq and Syria, but militant fighters are still on the move.

"We have made it very clear, I have and President Obama has, that this is a long, difficult effort," Hagel said.

Difficult, some critics say, because the U.S. military is not bombing enough targets and is not deploying any U.S. ground troops in the fight. There are also critics who say the U.S. does not have effective partners on the ground and is not training a sufficient number of local troops or militias.

"This sounds like a Goldilocks approach. We're looking for a solution that's just right," said Fred Hof, who worked in the Obama administration on Syria policy.

His criticism is focused on what's happening in Syria.

"You cannot wage war effectively [against] this kind of enemy if you do this only from the air — even if the tempo, even if the quantity was increased dramatically," Hof added.

The U.S. wants to train some 5,000 Syrian rebels over the next year to go after the Islamic State. But the Obama administration is trying to walk a political tightrope by trying to fight the Islamic State without taking on the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

Hof thinks that plays right into the hands of Syria's leader. He points out that Assad is hammering the "moderate" Syrian rebels the U.S. says it supports.

"Assad's strategic objective here is to try to get to a situation where the only two parties left standing in Syria are him and [the Islamic State]," Hof said.

Syrian rebel leaders are pleading for more help from the U.S., seeking more ammunition for themselves and more U.S. airstrikes against Assad's military.

But the focus of the U.S. operation is its bombing campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in both Syria and Iraq.

Defense analyst Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says those American airstrikes amount to what he calls an "unfocused mess" in both countries. The U.S. has carried out hundreds of strikes since August. Many have been directed at a truck here, a tank there, or perhaps a mobile oil refinery or a small concentration of troops.

What's needed in Iraq, Cordesman said, are American advisers placed with front-line Iraqi units, something the Obama administration has so far refused to do.

"If you don't have American advisers, air controllers, intelligence people in small numbers forward, helping them bridge over these kinds of gaps, even people who want to fight can't do it effectively," Cordesman said.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said these kinds of advisers might be needed in the coming months should Iraqi forces try to take back Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which is in the north.

Still, some say that any kind of increased military effort is likely to fail, especially in Iraq.

"Let's say we let them go 100 percent in," said Juan Cole, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. "What guarantee can they give me that seven years from now we're not having the same conversation."

He said the U.S. military can't solve the political problems in Iraq that have led to the Islamic State's gains. Some within Iraq's Sunni minority are supporting the militants because they still feel oppressed by the country's Shiite-led government.

"The idea that you could roll this back with airstrikes, that the airstrikes aren't vigorous enough — I mean, that's completely crazy," Cole said.

But the Iraqi forces have made some gains with the help of those American airstrikes, according to the Pentagon. Rear Adm. John Kirby says Iraqi troops have retaken a town or two in northern Iraq, then another south of Baghdad.

"We believe that the strategy is sound. We also believe that it is showing effect," Kirby said. After all, he added, the strategy is less than three months old.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Iraqi security officials say they have found a mass grave containing the bodies of 150 Sunni Muslim men who had resisted and then were captured by Islamic State militants near the city of Ramadi.

That news, it's a reminder of the urgency of the allied military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. That campaign is called Operation Inherent Resolve and critics complain that the only thing inherent about that strategy is its lack of resolve. The White House says the objective is to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, but some question whether the U.S. military effort matches the rhetoric. Here's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was on the defensive recently about the strategy to take on Islamic State fighters. American warplanes have been bombing targets in Iraq and Syria, but militant fighters are still on the move.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We have made it very clear - and I have and I know President Obama and others - that this is a long difficult effort.

BOWMAN: Difficult some critics say because the U.S. military is not bombing enough targets, not deploying any U.S. ground troops to help Iraqi forces in the fight and not training a sufficient number of local troops or militias.

FRED HOFF: This sounds like the Goldilocks approach, where we're looking for a solution that's just right.

BOWMAN: That's Fred Hoff, who worked in the Obama administration on Syria policy. He argues the strategy calls for bombing, but not too much bombing, training troops, but not too many troops. His criticism is focused on what's happening on the Syria side of the fight.

HOFF: You cannot wage war effectively against this kind of an enemy only from the air, even if the tempo, even if the quantity of air strikes were both increased dramatically.

BOWMAN: The U.S. wants to train some 5,000 Syrian rebels over the next year to go after the Islamic State but the Obama administration is trying to walk a political tightrope to find a way to fight the ISIS in Syria without taking on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Hoff thinks that plays right into the hands of Syria's leader. He points out that Assad is hammering the Syrian rebels the U.S. says it supports.

HOFF: Assad's strategic objective here is to try to get to a situation where the only two parties left standing in Syria are him and ISIL.

BOWMAN: Syrian rebel leaders are pleading for more help for the U.S. - more ammunition, airstrikes against Assad's military but the U.S. is now only focused on ISIL, another name for the Islamic State, in both Syria and Iraq, almost exclusively with its own airstrikes.

Defense analyst Anthony Cordesman says those American airstrikes amount to what he calls an unfocused mess in both countries, hundreds of airstrikes since August; hitting a truck here, a tank there, a mobile oil refinery or a small concentration of troops. What's needed in Iraq, Cordesman said, are American advisers with frontline Iraqi units, something the Obama administration has so far refused.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: If you don't have American advisers, air controllers, intelligence people in small numbers forward helping them bridge over these kinds of gaps, even people who want to fight can't do it effectively.

BOWMAN: The Pentagon's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, says these kinds of advisers might be needed in the coming months once Iraqi forces try to take back Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul.

Still, there are some who say any kind of increased military effort is doomed to failure, especially in Iraq.

JUAN COLE: Let's say we let them go 100 percent in. What guarantee can they give me that seven years from now we're not having this same conversation?

BOWMAN: That's Juan Cole. He teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. He says the U.S. military can't solve the political problems in Iraq that have led to the Islamic State gains. Some within Iraq's Sunni minority support the militants because they feel oppressed by the country's Shiite-led government.

COLE: The idea that you could roll this back with airstrikes, you know, that the airstrikes aren't vigorous enough - I mean, that's completely crazy.

BOWMAN: But Iraqi forces have made some gains, says the Pentagon, with the help of those American airstrikes. Rear Admiral John Kirby says Iraqi troops have retaken a town or two in northern Iraq then another south of Baghdad.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: We believe that the strategy's sound. We also believe that it is showing effect.

BOWMAN: And after all, Adm. Kirby says, the strategy is only three months old.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.