DOD has wide array of Iraq options
By: Philip Ewing
June 16, 2014 02:22 PM EDT
President Barack Obama has an impressive amount of firepower at his disposal as he weighs his options for helping beat back Islamist fighters in Iraq. The tough question is how he should use it — if at all.
At least four U.S. Navy warships are operating in the Persian Gulf on Monday, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a cruiser and a destroyer. Plus the Air Force has drones and many other aircraft on station in the region, too, both for surveillance and firepower.
The latest addition in the Gulf is the amphibious transport USS Mesa Verde, carrying about 360 sailors and 700 Marines, heavy helicopters and MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft.
“Its presence in the Gulf adds to that of other U.S. naval ships already there — including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush — and provides the commander in chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them,” said Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.
But having options to deliver “effects,” as American commanders like to say, has never been the most difficult problem for the military in the latter-day Middle East. The challenge is determining what to reach out and touch — and whether doing so would make any difference.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which swept across northern Iraq last week and captured several key cities, is not a convenient Soviet-style armored corps — or, for that matter, the Iraqi army or Republican Guard formations the U.S. has destroyed in the past. ISIS doesn’t have orderly rows of tanks, armored personnel carriers, fuel trucks and other classic military targets to destroy. Instead, by all appearances, it’s largely a group of men with rifles riding in pickup trucks.
The Pentagon would be charged with reversing the “momentum” of the group, Kirby said on Friday — if Obama decides to give that order. Defense officials will not, however, say what exactly it would mean to reverse its momentum. Stop it for a week? Stop it for good? Turn ISIS back and help Iraq’s government retake the captured cities?
Answering that question — defining the objectives of any military action — is the first job for the White House and the Pentagon.
Next is actually drawing up the plans of attack, but that isn’t any simpler. In plotting potential airstrikes on ISIS-held positions, American planners confront the same kinds of frustrations that have made the past decade of war so difficult in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An enemy without uniforms or much heavy equipment can hide in plain sight among civilians in populated areas.
Moreover, given the days’ worth of warnings about potential American action, ISIS elements could become so diffuse that by the time Navy warplanes or cruise missiles were on their way, no individual airstrike might do that much good.
There’s no question, however, that American strike planners do have a few aces to play. One is the presence of high- and medium-altitude reconnaissance drones, flights of which have “intensified” since the ISIS offensive last week, the Pentagon said.
Aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper let American commanders watch nearly whoever they want, in real time. If the U.S. can locate key ISIS commanders and keep tabs on them until Obama decides to act, the Americans could try to decapitate the leading elements of the ISIS force and sow fear and confusion among the terrorist fighters.
Another potential ace is the presence of the carrier George H.W. Bush. If ISIS tried again to move out in force, the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 8 could prey on its leading edges, harassing them and degrading them enough to improve the chances for Iraq’s army and the paramilitary forces — including some from Iran — said to be prepared to try to protect Baghdad.
Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged to Yahoo News on Monday that airstrikes aren’t “the whole answer” to defeating ISIS, but that they’re “one of the options” Obama is considering.
American air power could at least deny ISIS the ability to concentrate fighters and move in large numbers, Kerry said. “You can’t just let them run whole hog over the country, for a number of reasons.” he said.
Another problem is that while the Navy’s strike aircraft could likely destroy anything their target set, huge sections of the Iraqi military have already broken before the ISIS fighters. So there is no guarantee they could exploit the American top cover. Officials in Washington have been withering in their criticism of the Iraqi troops’ performance.
“I’m not gonna be cute about it,” Kirby said Friday. “I mean, we’re certainly disappointed by the performance of some Iraqi force units with respect to the challenges that they have faced in the last few days.”
Obama has ruled out sending American ground troops back into Iraq, with the exception of the small number of troops and Defense Department workers who are part of the normal military delegation to Baghdad. That could change — briefly — if Marines from the amphibious transport USS Mesa Verde have to help evacuate the U.S. Embassy if ISIS seriously threatens Baghdad.
American defense contractors say they’re evacuating their workers who help Iraq with its U.S. military equipment, among other tasks, although they declined to detail how many people have gone and how many could remain.
Officials in Washington also have been keen to stress that they’ve stepped up military assistance to Baghdad, but so far that has mostly included ammunition and about 300 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles. The Pentagon says it wants to expedite a sale and lease deal for Boeing-built AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, but officials gave no clue Monday about when those aircraft could actually arrive. There’s also no telling how quickly Iraqi pilots could put such helicopters into action once they did get into their arsenal.
So Obama’s short-term menu of military options may consist mostly of airstrikes by drones, human-piloted aircraft or cruise missiles. Once the smoke cleared from any potential American air operations, however, the basic problems would remain.
Portions of Syria and Iraq would likely remain lawless stretches where Islamic extremists roam freely. The government of Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki would still have to try to reconcile its feuding populations — in the context of a regional Sunni-Shiite religious war in which no side sees any incentive to compromise.