It’s with a fair amount of trepidation, but not a great deal of surprise that we learned about the return of U.S. forces in active combat roles in Iraq today. It was just a few years ago, the end of 2011, that we ostensibly washed our hands of the fruitless mission of trying to keep that nation intact. Now, just a couple years later, it’s no surprise that the military void is being filled. Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. But perhaps, for once in this region, airstrikes are just what the situation calls for.
ISIS, or ISIL, depending on your interpretation, is a product of a fragmented and weak central government in Baghdad coupled with the instability in Syria. Northwestern Iraq had become a lawless breeding ground for the hyper-radicalized Sunni extremists. Gaining strength with no threat to their existence over the past year, they have spilled out of the north and are hell bent on purging the region of Syria and Iraq of all Christians, Kurds and even now, the Yazidis. They share equal hate for the Shiites and moderate Sunnis who stand in the way of their expansion.
As we know, ISIL has consistently outmaneuvered and outfought the Coalition-trained Iraqi army at every juncture. As they rolled south they have gained momentum, cash, and the arms and artillery from captured Iraqi army battlefield spoils. Just last week ISIL captured a critical national asset despite the Iraqi army’s determination to defend it, the Mosul Dam. The Dam provides water and power to Mosul and much of the north. Its loss is both a massive military defeat and a huge threat. If ISIL destroys the dam, a 65’ wall of water will sweep over the city of Mosul and the floods will affect infrastructure as far south as Baghdad, 300 miles away. With Mosul now firmly under ISIL control they have asserted their grasp over most of northern Iraq.
As ISIL has moved south, they have provided ethnic and religious minorities a Sophie’s choice: convert, leave, or be slaughtered. Already thousands of Christians have been displaced and killed by ISIL. Now, the Yazidis are at risk. Ethnic Kurds, about 200,000 Yazidis fled their home in Sinjar, between Mosul and the Syrian border. Most were able to make it to the protected Kurdish territories in the east. But somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 including an estimated 25,000 children, are trapped in the rugged hilly terrain of Mount Sinjar. ISIL forces ring the mountains below, trapping the refugees and isolating them from Kurdish troops trying to rescue them.
Five days ago, President Obama called for a two-pronged approach for dealing with the immediate crisis. The first part was an airdrop of food and water. In just a fifteen-minute window of exposure, one C-17 and two C-130s were able to drop 72 bundles of supplies while two F/A-18s provided high cover. The mission was an apparent success with 8,000 MREs and 5,300 gallons of water pushed out the back. It’s unclear as of yet how much of the supplies made it into the hands of the refugees.
The second prong of the air offensive is to protect U.S. personnel in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. ISIL forces have massed on the Kurdish border and have used their captured artillery to bombard Erbil. Airstrikes from F/A-18s off the USS Bush in the Persian Gulf have begun destroying ISIL targets.
Use of the military to achieve political goals is a consistently recurring recipe for disaster. There hasn’t been a politician since Caesar who knew how to properly utilize military force. But that said, this specific situation has a chance of achieving objectives. And there is a decent, relatively recent precedent to support that thesis.
First of all, the objectives should be absolutely clear. We all know that there won’t be boots on the ground anytime soon. So what should the goals be for the airstrikes? First and foremost, the 40,000 refugees must be tended to as best as possible. Airdrops of food, water, basic medical supplies and shelter should continue to help ensure the best chance of survival. The next objective hast to be getting the trapped Yazidis through the ISIL cordon and across the 150 miles of hostile terrain to the Kurdish territories. The third objective is to demolish ISILs store of vehicles and artillery pieces.
Back in 1999, Tomcats from the USS Roosevelt, using precision air to ground munitions, were instrumental in stopping Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian advance into Kosovo. The traditional air campaign had worked through their list of strategic targets rapidly, but Milosevic’s troops continued to press into Kosovo. Just like today in Iraq, there was zero political will to risk troops on the ground. It was air power or nothing. The tactical use of precision strike aircraft to destroy the Serbian tanks and armored personnel carriers halted the Serb advance and almost certainly prevented a bloody genocide.
The situation resonates strongly with the plight of the Yazidis and the Kurds today. The tactical and political landscape are similar. The Hornets and Rhinos on the USS Bush are the perfect weapon system to achieve the goals of assisting the Kurd ground forces effect a rescue of the blockaded Yazidis as well as severely limiting ISILs future fighting power by destroying every last truck, troop carrier, cannon, mortar and stockpile of munitions. It’s the perfect fit at the right time.
(Featured Image Courtesy: RT.com)