The Sunni jihadists who have seized northern Iraq are led by bold, determined, murderous zealots. But the rank and file are unemployed, untrained, murderous teenagers. In pickup trucks, they raced south from town to town, firing rifles in the air. There were no battles or tests of resolve. The jihadists, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq and now called ISIS, did not win by force of arms. Rather, the Iraqi army dissolved, for two reasons.
First, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had replaced competent leaders with Shiite party hacks whom he controlled. They had no incentive to fight and abandoned their troops.
Second, the Maliki government apparatus has systematically stolen public funds. The army was rarely paid. The officers thus reverted to their selfish ways, selling off fuel and other commodities while ignoring or shaking down their own soldiers. The soldiers had no reason to fight.
The Shiite army in Sunni land was as strong as an empty eggshell.
Mr. Obama responded by publicly linking any U.S. military support with political outreach by Maliki to the very Sunnis whom he has oppressed for the past six years. Maliki was expected to humble himself in front of his aroused Shiite supporters, with no chance of a realistic response by the Sunnis now controlled by the jihadists. By making a demand that could not be met, Obama justified doing little to nothing.
His passivity was a conscious political choice, not forced by a lack of effective military options. U.S. airpower can dominate the flat, open battlefield of Iraq. Over the course of three wars, as a Marine grunt, I have watched American surveillance and precision-air-strike capabilities advance to an astonishing degree. Real-time video enables our drones to select and strike any pickup among the 200 or 300 jihadist vehicles that form the vanguard threatening Baghdad.
Yes, the jihadists can partially conceal their weapons. But they cannot safely roar down any highway in an armed cavalcade. If six vehicles were destroyed one day, seven the next, etc., then within ten days, every driver would wonder when his time was coming. Once the teenagers fear being tagged by the finger of death, caution will replace exuberance.
However, bombing from afar accomplishes no salutary political end and can worsen the global image of America. From Maliki’s perspective, air strikes with no Americans on the ground would be ideal. His political power is not threatened, and the strikes impede the progress of the jihadists. Some civilian casualties are inevitable. This will antagonize the Sunni tribes that came over to our side in 2008 and now believe that we abandoned them in 2011. Air strikes would thus do little for America but would strengthen or please Maliki.
Drone strikes make no sense in isolation. Air power must serve a strategic political goal — and the goal here is to replace Maliki with a leader and a movement dedicated to Shiite–Sunni power sharing and comity. The Shiite repression of the Sunnis, led by the Maliki faction, caused this conflagration. For America to try to broker such a political upheaval would require boots on the ground to manifest our power — air controllers, advisers, and a protecting force. Then the Iraqis would see that America has not abandoned them.
But if we do that, then we are involved in combat. Air controllers on flat ground call strikes 200 to 800 meters to their front, meaning they are in direct firefights, which means casualties to friendlies, enemies, and civilians. If the controllers are in helicopter gunships, they are safe, unless the jihadists have anti-air missiles, but civilian casualties are still inevitable.
Having pulled out, rushing back in now is a high-risk option. Maliki might retain power, regardless of what we do. Plus, the Iraqi army can be resurrected only by eradicating the systemic corruption of the Baghdad political elites. On top of that, the fighting has already led to the suspension of plans by Western oil companies to sign long-term agreements, meaning that Iraq’s oil infrastructure will continue to decay. This means we pay the bill for our involvement, amounting to tens of billions. To turn Iraq around, any renewed American military presence would have to remain indefinitely.