October 9, 2014

Airpower versus ISIS - try the Afghan model

The author on CNN New Day with Michaela Periera - October 7, 2014 

The answer to the question posed on the screen in the above photo is a resounding NO. The half-hearted air operation - I won't dignify it by calling it an air campaign - cannot and will not drive ISIS out of the territory it has seized since the early summer of this year. Repeated attempts by the Iraqi Army and Kurdish pershmerga - even with supporting U.S., coalition and Iraqi airstrikes - have failed to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds in Iraq, let alone Syria.

Much of the ISIS success is due to the ineptitude of the Iraqi Army after most of its competent leadership was removed by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his quest to politicize the Iraqi armed forces. Thanks to the premature departure of U.S. forces in 2011 (I have already discussed this policy failure in great detail), there was no American oversight of the Iraqi military.

Many of us have spoken out about the President's ill-advised prohibition of American "boots on the ground." Besides being untrue, it is illogical. There are, of course, American boots on the ground. After having to concede this, now the Administration mantra is "no American boots on the ground in a combat role." They have to be very specific in their wording - there are three distinct clauses - because any of us who have been in a military aircraft when people are shooting at you regard that as combat. I digress.

Over the last few weeks, we have watched as ISIS relentlessly consolidate its positions in both Iraq and Syria, going back to cities and towns they had bypassed in their drives up and down the Euphrates Valley. One of those areas has been the Syrian border town of Kobani, a city mostly inhabited by ethnic Kurds - the city is known in Arabic as 'Ayn al-'Arab.

The local Kurdish People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel - YPG), outmanned and outgunned by the ISIS fighters, have tried to slow the repeated assaults - supported by armor and artillery - on Kobani, but inevitably they have been pushed back towards the Turkish border.

In response to this assault, many of the Kurds living in the Kobani area have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey. Turkey initially allowed tens of thousands of the Kurds to seek refuge, but have lately refused to allow more to cross, fearing that many are actually Syrian Kurdish militiamen allied with the Kurdish Workers' Party, a designated terrorist organization with much Turkish blood on its hands. Kurds across southern and eastern Turkey are demonstrating - sometimes violently - against the inaction of the Turkish government to protect their fellow Kurds.

Yesterday, while I was on the air on CNN, one of the camera crews in Turkey just north of Kobani was able to record excellent footage of a U.S.Air Force B-1 bomber (affectionately called "The Bone" based on the letter B and the word One) patrolling the skies over Kobani. I indicated to the viewers that the wings of the variable-wing bomber were swept to their forward position allowing the pilot to slow the aircraft to allow him (or her) to observe ISIS activity on the ground and put weapons on targets if possible to do so without risk to YPG units or civilians.

Despite the air attacks by the Americans, Kobani will likely fall because while these air operations may slow ISIS's advance into the city - allowing civilians to seek refuge in Turkey - the pilots cannot observe the activity on the ground to the detail needed to turn back ISIS fighters.

There is a proven tactic to achieve the desired results - put American air controllers on the ground embedded with the YPG and Free Syrian Army in Syria, and with the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi Army in Iraq. I call this the "Afghan model" - it is what we did in the initial phase of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

These teams, usually U.S. Air Force combat controllers (also called joint terminal attack controllers, JTACs) operating as part of joint service special operations team, were embedded with Northern Alliance fighters in operations against the Taliban. These teams were able to leverage the effects of American airstrikes on specific targets on the battlefield, allowing the outnumbered and often outgunned Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban and take control of Kabul in a few short weeks.

These teams use a variety of targeting devices, including laser designators to mark targets directly or determine exact GPS coordinates for munitions using that guidance system. It is the most effective means of employing airpower. Airpower can be, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, a force multiplier and allow smaller units to defeat superior forces.

Yes, I know the problem. No matter how you nuance the introduction of American tactical air controllers onto the battlefield, you cannot escape the fact that these will be "American boots on the ground in a combat role." Granted, it will be a few boots and not a combat unit like a brigade or division, but it is putting Americans on the ground in combat.

That, however, is what it is going to take to turn this around.