U.S. warplanes are obliterating Islamist militants – hitting low-value targets and killing handfuls of jihadis with multimillion-dollar laser-guided weapons systems – as President Barack Obama wades cautiously back into the Iraqi sectarian quagmire he once decried as a "dumb war, a rash war."
The short-term objective of the now-daily air strikes – at least as defined by the Obama administration – appears to be threefold: blunting the Islamic State jihadi advance; stiffening battered Kurdish pershmerga forces; and saving tens of thousands of Yazidi civilians, a minority non-Muslim religious sect, surrounded and stranded on a remote, barren mountain.
Grainy Pentagon videos show crates packed with thousands of refugee rations rumbled out of the back of lumbering transport planes over the sunbaked flanks of Mount Sinjar. Meanwhile, after five days of air strikes – mostly by F-18 Hornets flying from the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Persian Gulf – the Pentagon enumerates each and every successful strike while it admits the limitations of an air war.
On Tuesday, a loitering Reaper drone destroyed a mortar with a Hellfire missile, a potent demonstration of the precision strike capabilities of the U.S. military and a reminder of the asymmetrical nature of waging a counterinsurgency against zealots unlikely to run out of either martyrs or lethal, low-tech weapons.
The drone strike destroyed an "ISIL mortar position that was firing on Kurdish forces defending internally displaced Yazidi civilians who were attempting to evacuate," the Pentagon said, referring to the Islamic State militants by a former name.
But U.S. warplanes have been routinely attacking targets in Iraq for more than two decades. In the years after the 100-day Gulf War in 1991, there were regular air strikes in northern and southern Iraq by fighter-bombers enforcing a "no-fly" zone. The intensity ramped up during the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein; U.S. warplanes and missile-firing drones attacked targets as a bloody counterinsurgency waxed and waned until Mr. Obama pulled all U.S. ground forces out of Iraq three years ago.
U.S. air power, coupled with more than 100,000 U.S. troops, eventually crushed the Sunni insurgency, but without boots on the ground, air power provides only a limited and temporary military advantage.
While this week's bombing "helped check" the advances of the militants, giving the retreating Kurdish peshmergas time to rearm and regroup, Lieutenant-General William Mayville, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, concedes "the strikes are unlikely to affect [the Sunni extremist militant group's] overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria."
Mr. Obama has yet to define the longer-term, strategic objectives of the air strikes he has ordered except to promise a war-weary American public that no U.S combat troops will return to Iraq and warn that that the resumed air war "is going to take some time."
Confusingly, the Pentagon's Gen. Mayville said: "There are no plans to expand the current air campaign beyond the current self-defence activities."
Yet the White House has also announced that it will arm the Kurdish peshmergas – in effect breaking the Obama administration policy against giving weapons and munitions to sectarian militias rather than the supposedly multiethnic Iraqi military controlled by Baghdad.
With U.S. fighter-bombers now delivering air strikes to help the peshmergas defend a 1,000-kilometre border of a nascent Kurdistan, the political dimension of U.S. policy as it returns to war-torn Iraq remain even murkier.
The militants have now carved out a huge swath of Syria and Iraq, creating the heartland of the Islamic Caliphate between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Flush with money, battlefield successes and a trove of modern military equipment mostly abandoned by the collapsing Iraqi government forces that chose to flee rather than fight, the Islamist militants won't be dislodged by air power.
Islamic State now controls not only huge areas of desert where air strikes can effectively pick off isolated and obvious jihadis but also more than a dozen major cities, including Mosul and Fallujah.
Even with air power – including warplanes, helicopters gunships and armed drones – more than 10,000 U.S. troops battling house-to-house for nearly two months were needed to oust a few thousands Sunni militants from Fallujah in 2004 – considered the heaviest fighting of the entire Iraq war.