Iraq: Why Air Support Is Too Risky To Use A Lot


October 10, 2014: The air campaign against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has not been extensive enough to stop ISIL from moving around and attacking. American and other Western nations can use air bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) so there is no shortage of bases, or aircraft. There is a shortage of aggressiveness based on a fear of civilian casualties that would be used by ISIL to generate more public support in Moslem countries. The cult of victimization in the Islamic (especially the Arab) world ensures that any Moslem civilians killed by non-Moslems is heavily criticized. Moslems killing Moslems is also condemned but that happens all the time so it is not really news. Despite the fact that all Moslem states have condemned ISIL, there is no such unanimity on whether the non-Moslems states being called on to save the Moslem world from ISIL can be permitted to unintentionally kill Moslem civilians along the way. This is much less of a problem for Moslem warplanes, but the Moslem world has far fewer capable pilots to carry out a large scale and sustained air campaign against ISIL. This situation cannot be discussed openly, but everyone knows it exists and the behavior of Moslem leaders and media over the last few decades provides ample proof.

Because of the fear of civilian casualties the air operations against ISIL have lots of restrictions on them and that means the approval of senior political or military leaders before targets can be hit. Thus ISIL knows that if they keep moving they will likely not be attacked from the air. ISIL can be seen exploiting this in western Iraq (Anbar province) where convoys of ISIL fighters appear to operate with impunity by constantly moving and hitting government troops and towns controlled by Sunni tribes hostile to ISIL.

American military leaders are disappointed at not being allowed to go after the mobile ISIL units as is the case in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Civilian casualties are less of a problem in Afghanistan because Afghans admit such deaths are very low and that over 95 percent of civilian deaths are the result of operations by the Taliban (mainly) and Afghan security forces. Arabs, however, are notoriously more sensitive about non-Moslems killing civilians so U.S. commanders who know what works in Afghanistan cannot use their forces that way in Iraq, at least not yet. The Western generals know that the world would not end if their political leaders allowed the use of “Afghan rules” but so far the politicians are more afraid of bad press than of ISIL victories. The generals believe this will change if ISIL continues to make gains in western Iraq and eastern Syria. But in the meantime the Western warplanes can mainly watch and only really attack areas where ISIL is stuck in one place long enough for the generals to get permission to attack.

So far over 70 percent of the air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and half of those in Syria have been carried out by American warplanes. The rest have been flown by NATO and Arab countries. There have been about 250 air strikes against ISIL in Iraq so far . These attacks have destroyed about 300 vehicles (60 percent of them armed and 15 percent armored). Some 43 percent of the attacks were on ISIL combat troops in combat positions (in trenches, bunkers or moving to make an attack). The rest of the attacks were against structures (for headquarters, training, living quarters or storing things like weapons and ammo). Some of the structures were checkpoints and command posts and a few were roadside bombs that could only be destroyed from the air. So far (since August 8th) there have been only four to five air strikes a day in Iraq. Air force planners point out that four or five times as many are needed to make a significant difference and having fifty to a hundred air attacks a day for a while would hurt ISIL badly.

With the obvious targets hit or abandoned the air power is concentrating on ISIL combat forces. This has been most effective with Kurdish troops from northern Iraq. The Kurdish forces in Iraq are experienced working with American troops and air power. As a result ISIL has come to fear the Kurds and avoid them. Because of the threat of air strikes ISIL has to be careful concentrating forces to push back the Kurdish advance.

ISIL has one big advantage in that, historically, enemy dominance of the air does not allow total destruction of the force on the ground. But this domination of the air does have a crippling effect. This was seen in France and Germany during World War II. Between mid- 1944 and early 1945 the allies has so many fighters available that they could constantly patrol roads and quickly radio for reinforcements if they detected the Germans making a large scale movement. Otherwise fighters could use their 12.7mm machine-guns, unguided rockets or bombs against any ground targets that appeared. Back then, there were no heat sensors so the Germans found they could move safely at night, as long as there were no lights involved. This was slower than daylight travel and involved more accidents. There was also the risk of getting sloppy concealing yourselves when you got the vehicles off the road before the sun, and the allied fighters, came up.  It was the same situation in Korea (1950-53) for the Chinese and in Vietnam (1965-72) for the North Vietnamese. In both cases the people on the ground had to accept the fact that they would have to move more slowly and with more losses to get anywhere and in combat would suffer more losses from air attack. In other words domination of the air did not neutralize the troops on the ground it just slowed them down and made them less effective. By the end of the 20th century there were lots of heat sensors and cheap UAVs were appearing and air dominance became more effective because they could be detected and attacked at night. But the enemy on the ground still could make some effort, adapt and continue to operate.

What may save ISIL is the reluctance of the Western and Arab nations to carry out a major air campaign. So far the air attacks have been few in number and there are many instances of ISIL forces moving and operating openly without suffering an air attack because there simply are not that many warplanes overhead.

News stories that the U.S. has insufficient aerial surveillance UAVs and aircraft over Iraq because most are tied up in Afghanistan ignores the fact that the U.S. Army has over 50 MQ-1Cs in divisional aviation brigades that could be sent. The army has manned electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft as well. Several NATO countries also have UAVs and manned aircraft they could send.

On the ground Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces have been halting and, especially in the case of the Kurds, pushing back ISIL. While the Iraqi Arabs have several hundred thousand men (nearly half of them militias) they can depend on (and over 100,000 Iraqi Army troops Western advisors describe as too poorly led to be useful), most of these men are tied down guarding the “border” (or front like) between government and ISIL controlled territory. The Kurds have the same border problem but are better trained and led than their Arab counterparts in the south. The Kurds are also more enthusiastic about working with foreigners. Thus American advisors are welcome. At one point the Kurds wanted Israeli military advisors to return. The last ones left in 1975 because of American pressure and a return of the Israelis, at least officially, was still blocked by the Americans. The Kurds and Jews go way back and have always gotten along, usually because both saw themselves as minorities in Iraq and before that the Turk Empire. The Kurds always practiced a more mellow (Sufi) form of Islam and still do. Most Kurds are very hostile to all forms of Islamic radicalism. Thus the Kurds are getting a larger number of Western special operations troops and military advisors than the Iraqi Arabs. The Kurds are simply easier to work with and absorb the training better.

At the same time the Kurds do not get along with the Arabs (or the Turks) and as a result have had difficulty getting new weapons because Iraqi Arabs as well as the Turks refuse to allow it. That is changing now as the United States and NATO countries are flying in new weapons and more ammo. But the Kurds still lack armored combat vehicles. Despite the equipment shortages the Kurds are still more effective in combat and because they can be trusted to protect Western ground control teams the Kurds get a disproportionate amount of air support.

At the moment the most successful ISIL operation is around Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province, which is most of western Iraq). The raiders have been attacking Iraqi Army checkpoints, trying (and often succeeding) to destroy them before an air strike can show up. The same tactic is used against towns held by anti-ISIL tribes. If these tribes get hit often enough by ISIL they will switch sides. ISIL is seeking to completely cut off Ramadi from Baghdad and take it. Meanwhile the Iraqi troops have managed to recapture more of Fallujah, which has been under constant ISIL attack for nearly a year.

The U.S. carries out daily strikes against any ISIL forces that are spotted out in the open and not moving. ISIL knows a lot about avoiding smart bombs and missiles but they also know that if they are to control their new “Islamic State” (eastern Syria and western Iraq) they have to use bases and concentrate gunmen to deal with armed opposition. There is no tactic that will make ISIL immune to smart bombs under those conditions, not if they still want to control territory in their new “Islamic State.”

October 8, 2014: Qatar is being criticized for its energetic efforts to supply Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria with weapons and ammunition. The criticism is based on video and items captured from ISIL. A recent video showed an ISIL man using a Chinese FN-6 shoulder fired surface to air missile shooting down an Iraqi helicopter. The FN-6 was known to have been provided by Qatar to rebels in Syria. Other Chinese weapons and ammunition from Qatar have also been captured from ISIL. The Qatari stuff comes from items either captured by ISIL (which has been fighting other rebel groups all this year) or because many Syrian rebel groups have joined ISIL in the last few months. 

October 7, 2014: The UN has released a report that compiles known ISIL atrocities in northern Iraq. These acts include mass executions (of captured soldiers and police as well as civilians) and destruction of historical sites ISIL considers “un-Islamic”. The UN concludes that ISIL is guilty of war crimes. These atrocities continue, but at a lower level because so many ISIL men have been sent off to fight the growing number of Kurds and Iraqi Arabs who are effectively opposing ISIL with force.

Iran announced that it has seized a large quantity of explosives and arrested 130 Sunnis and disrupted plans to launch terror attacks in two provinces. About ten percent of Iranians are not Shia and there are active terrorist operations in the northwest (among Shia and Sunni Kurds), the west (among largely Shia Arabs) and the southeast (among Sunni Baluchis).

October 5, 2014: The U.S. has begun using AH-64 helicopter gunships to provide direct air support for Iraqi troops. Several of these helicopters arrived in Baghdad in July but were mainly used for patrols and an emergency force in case ISIL got close to American bases.

In response to a major internal split the remaining Pakistani Taliban pledged allegiance to ISIL . All t his is a major win for the Pakistani army because the major defecting Taliban faction, Jamaatul Ahrar, is in effect, pledging to no longer support terrorist violence inside Pakistan. The army tends to go easy on Islamic terrorists who confine their mayhem to India, Afghanistan and other foreign targets.

October 3, 2014: ISIL posted (on the Internet) a video of them beheading a captured British aid worker. ISIL says it will behead an American aid worker next. ISIL is believed to have at least fifteen captured Westerners, most of them aid workers grabbed in Syria. Three of those videoed beheadings have been of captured Arabs while one was a French tourist kidnapped by an ISIL affiliate in Algeria. One of those already beheaded was an American aid worker. ISIL says it will keep killing Western captives until Western nations halt their air attacks on ISIL.

October 1, 2014: There were about 2,000 terrorism related deaths in September compared to 1,500 in August, 1,737 in July and over 2,400 in June. This is all a big jump from the 934 in May (which was a slight decrease from April). In April there were 1,009 deaths (87 percent civilians, including terrorists and the other 13 percent security forces). A spike in terror related deaths in April was largely to do with terrorist efforts to disrupt the April 30 national elections. This effort failed but hundreds of people died in the process. In March at least 592 Iraqis died from Islamic terrorist violence. Soldiers and police were 18 percent of that and most of the rest were civilians. It’s believed at least 200 Islamic terrorists died. The March death rate was down from February, when there were about a thousand deaths. In 2013 the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. Over 12,000 Iraqis have died so far this year from terrorist related violence. For all that the deaths in Syria are still nearly three times what they are in Iraq. There are also a lot fewer refugees in Iraq (about 600,000) compared to Syria (more than six million).

September 30, 2014: On the Syrian border Kurdish forces, allied with an Iraqi Sunni tribe that had turned against ISIL, attacked and captured a border crossing controlled by ISIL. Many Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq have turned against ISIL, at great risk to themselves. ISIL has retaliated savagely against rebellion Sunni tribes in Syria. Defections like these were a prelude to the al Qaeda in Iraq collapse in 2007. But before this can seriously weaken ISIL the Americans have to convince the Shia dominated Iraqi government to make peace with their Sunni minority on terms acceptable to most Sunnis. That is difficult given the bitter memories the Shia and Kurds (who together comprise over 80 percent of the population) have of decades of brutal Sunni rule. The Syrian situation is more complicated, with the Sunni majority (nearly 80 percent of the population) also angry at decades of brutal Shia minority rule. The Sunni majority in Syria is more religiously conservative than the Shia Arabs (largely Shia) and Kurds (largely Sunni) of Iraq. This means that most rebels are Islamic conservatives and more sympathetic to Islamic terrorist groups. But in both Syria and Iraq most Sunni Arabs do not want to live according to the strict rules enforced by ISIL.

September 29, 2014: ISIL forces advanced to within ten kilometers of Baghdad before Shia militias and army troops halted and eventually pushed back the Islamic terrorists.

September 27, 2014: After several days of heavy fighting soldiers and Shia militias recaptured the Muqdadiyah dam north of Baghdad. This was part of an operation that also drove ISIL gunmen out of more than thirty villages and towns.

September 25, 2014: T he U.S. Army announced it was sending a division headquarters (about 500 troops) to Iraq, the first such unit to be in Iraq since 2011. Actually only about 200 of those troops will be in Iraq, the rest will be at other bases in the region. About a third of the troops in Iraq will be up north in the Kurdish controlled area while the rest will be near Baghdad. The American and NATO advisors are supervising a reorganization of the Iraqi Army. This includes recommending which officers should be fired (or at least sidelined for now). Some troops, and many volunteers for militias are being trained. The Western advisors work closely with commanders and Iraqi officers in charge of support in order to make the Iraqis more effective in combat and in supplying, paying and providing medical care for the troops. All these changes are probably temporary as the culture of corruption is not going away and once the ISIL threat is dealt with all the bad habits and incompetent officers will return.





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