Governance: Why air power alone will not defeat ISIS

A Daily Beast article from last Friday makes the case that American combat air power in Iraq and Syria is hampered by the lack of a forward ground component to precisely identify ISIS targets in a timely manner. It is suggested that ground-based air control, better overall ground intelligence, and aircraft more suited to a close air support mission will more effectively halt ISIS advances.

This suggestion is correct. American and coalition airstrikes have successfully degraded some of the most fearsome weapons in ISIS’s arsenal—often, those looted from the Syrian and Iraqi armies. These strikes have targeted command positions, tanks, mobile artillery, armed vehicles, and air defense systems. Ground-based air control and intelligence gathering would be able to identify more targets and coordinate strikes more closely with local forces.

However, a freer use of air power will not accomplish as much as we might hope. ISIS is an insurgency. It is an especially capable and advanced insurgency, but that is its fundamental nature; it aims to replace established state structures and provide governance for the people. Insurgencies take on increasing characteristics of a true state as they develop, and fall back toward being a slippery harassment force when they need to. As expected, ISIS changed its tactics shortly after the bombing began.

Insurgencies, as we have re-learned painfully in the last dozen years, are extremely difficult to tackle using military power alone. It can be done, but it doesn’t work if the counterinsurgents don’t agree on their goals. Turkey’s ground forces lie waiting near the Syrian border, but President Erdogan has made clear he will not assist any effort that indirectly supports the Assad regime’s survival.

The coalition’s strategy right now is one of containment. It is meant to halt ISIS’s expansion on the ground, cut off its supply of foreign recruits, and destroy its means of fundraising. The containment strategy is minimally acceptable to all of the involved partners. Going beyond containment into rollback is where things get complicated.

The U.S. seems to have significantly patched up its relationship with Saudi Arabia as both countries realized they were indirectly contributing to the creation of a monster that threatened both of them. Meanwhile, the replacement of Nouri al-Maliki makes it at least a little more possible that Sunni inclusion in the political process can take hold.

Still, there are difficult decisions we’re not ready to make that will have to be made before we can roll back ISIS. No one can agree on a vision for Syria, and there are multiple countries competing for Iraq, as well. Without those political answers, our objectives are extremely limited. Those limited objectives can be furthered with an American ground presence, but they will offer only tactical advantages.

About the Author
Dan Rozenson is a graduate student in security policy at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He also writes about baseball at Baseball Prospectus.
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