After a Summer of Horrors, America Prepares to Punch Back

by Jim Geraghty

From the last Morning Jolt of the week:

We’re Dropping Aid, and Maybe Some Bombs, if ISIS Gets Frisky.

We give President Obama a lot of deserved grief. But last night, facing  a tough choice, he finally did something besides vote “present.”

President Obama said Thursday that he authorized “targeted airstrikes” if needed to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq, as well as airdrops of food and water to religious minorities in Iraq who are under siege from Islamic militants and trapped on a mountaintop.

“Today, America is coming to help,” Obama said.

The administration has been weighing options for weeks, but the issue has come to a head with a mounting humanitarian crisis and unrelenting progress by Islamist extremists.

The most immediate crisis involved the Yazidis, a small religious minority, who have fled their homes and are trapped on a mountaintop surrounded by Islamist militants and are facing dehydration and starvation.

The U.S. military made an initial airdrop of meals and water to thousands of civilians threatened by militants on Thursday. The aircraft that made the drop safely exited the region after conducting a low-level flight and staying over the area for 15 minutes.

Three U.S. cargo aircraft delivered 72 bundles of supplies, including food and water, the Pentagon said. The aircraft were escorted by two FA-18 fighter attack jets.

The United States “cannot turn a blind eye” while innocent families face the prospect of “genocide,” Obama said, justifying U.S. military action that could eventually include airstrikes.

This is not “meddling” where we’re not wanted. The situation is simple. The Iraqis and Turks have made their own limited airborne efforts to save those refugees, but nobody has the abilities we have. Either we do it, and save lives, or most of those lives don’t get saved.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that ISIS would steer clear of attacking Americans. We know who these guys are.

“This is about America’s national security,” said Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador to Iraq under Mr. Bush and to Afghanistan under Mr. Obama. “We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the ISIS leader, “have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”

But if not, then the question arises: How far is Mr. Obama willing to go? He said on Thursday that there is “no American military solution” to the Iraqi insurgency, pointing again to the need for a new politically inclusive government in Baghdad. What he might do if that fails he did not say. And while aides stressed this is a narrow mission, they acknowledged scenarios in which it could expand.

Here’s what we could be doing in the coming days:

A senior administration official described the airstrike authorization as “narrow,” but outlined a number of broad contingencies in which they could be launched, including a possible threat to U.S. personnel in Baghdad from possible breaches in a major dam Islamist forces seized Thursday that could flood the Iraqi capital.

U.S. aircraft also are authorized to launch airstrikes if the military determines that Iraqi government and Kurdish forces are unable to break the siege that has stranded tens of thousands of civilians belonging to the minority Yazidi sect atop a barren mountain outside the northern town of Sinjar.

“As we can provide air support to relieve that pressure, the president has given the military the authority to do so,” the senior official said. He said that congressional leaders had been consulted, but that Obama had the legal authority as commander in chief to launch the strikes to protect U.S. personnel and national security interests.

And now, the ominous news

The consensus among ex-CIA analysts, former military officers, and Iraq veterans who spoke with The Daily Beast is that the Peshmerga’s abilities were overrated. No one questions the Kurds’ willingness to fight, but their military prowess appears to have degraded in the years since the U.S. military stopped training them and withdrew from Iraq.

Douglas Ollivant, a former Army officer who advised Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and served under two presidents in the National Security Council, expressed a view common among military and intelligence officers: “I think the general consensus among the American military people in country is that the Kurds just aren’t any better than any other military force in Iraq, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re having the same lack of success as the rest of the Iraqi army.”

A former Special Forces officer in Iraq who maintains extensive contacts among the Kurdish forces points out another factor affecting their performance. “The Kurds’ biggest weakness is the size of the border they have to protect from ISIS and the imperative they are under to yield nothing,” he said. “ISIS can give up territory, but the Kurds cannot.”

Air strikes against ISIS targets can weaken the group, buy time, and prevent it from massing on Kurdish forces, but according to military and CIA veterans, air power alone will not be decisive.

This summer we’ve seen one evil force after another acting with impunity – ISIS crucifying people and committing religious cleansing and blowing up Christian shrines and churches, Russian separatists blowing airliners out of the sky, Taliban agents infiltrating the ranks of the Afghan army and killing our troops, Hamas launching rockets and hiding behind kids.

It is heartening to see America finally punching back.