More Air Power in Iraq Counterinsurgency

Air Power Gains More Prominent Role In Iraq Counterinsurgency Efforts (Robert Burns, AP)

In Fallujah and other Iraqi cities not controlled by American forces, the military is turning increasingly to air power to target suspected insurgent hideouts. Although U.S. officials say the tactic is effective, it has raised Iraqi anger over civilian casualties. The counterinsurgency led by U.S. forces has been fought mainly on the ground against a resilient enemy. But air power is taking a more prominent role because it is the most effective military tool in places like Fallujah, where U.S. ground troops are not present. Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as Navy F/A-18s flying off the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in the Persian Gulf, have been used in the recent attacks, Pentagon officials said. Air Force AC-130 gunships, with side-firing 105mm artillery guns, also have seen action lately.

On Monday, U.S. planes attacked a suspected militant hideout in Fallujah, the center of operations and support for a group led by Jordanian-born terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It was at least the fifth airstrike in Fallujah in the past week, indicating the high priority U.S. officials place on destroying al-Zarqawi’s group, which is believed to have links to al-Qaida. U.S. officials said Monday’s attack “effectively and accurately” targeted al-Zarqawi operatives and associates in a building where they were meeting. A U.S. military statement said innocent civilians were spared. But a Fallujah General Hospital official said three houses had been destroyed and at least 20 people were killed, including women and children.

In the northern city of Tal Afar, which also had fallen under the control of insurgents, a U.S. airstrike last Thursday killed dozens of Iraqis. U.S. officials said it was aimed at ridding the city of terrorists, and The New York Times quoted the commander of U.S. forces in the Tal Afar area as saying Iraqi and U.S. troops had entered the city on Sunday and found the streets calm.

A leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, criticized the use of heavy U.S. force in Tal Afar, saying the Americans caused “catastrophes” that could have been avoided if Iraqis had been in charge of security. Turkey urged the United States to quickly end military operations in Tal Afar, saying attacks have caused casualties of mostly ethnic Turks living there.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute think tank, said Monday the Americans seem to believe that airstrikes in Fallujah will wear down the insurgents and buy time for U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces to prepare for a ground assault in the weeks ahead. “But you have to wonder whether we’re radicalizing the Iraqi civilian population” in the meantime amid claims — substantiated or not — that airstrikes are killing innocent people, Thompson said.

The situation in Fallujah is particularly difficult for the Americans, in part because months have passed since the Marines halted a combined air-and-ground assault on the city and chose to put a local military force known as the Fallujah Brigade in charge of rooting out the insurgents. That force ended up abetting the insurgents and it was disbanded in recent days. Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, whose 1st Marine Expeditionary Force took over responsibility for Fallujah and the rest of Anbar province last March, told reporters on Sunday that he had been opposed to the decisions to storm the city in April and then suspend the attack three days later. In a comment that raised eyebrows among senior officials at the Pentagon, Conway was quoted as saying, “I would simply say that when you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, that you really need to understand what the consequences are, and not perhaps vacillate in the middle of something like that. Once you commit, you’ve got to stay committed.” Conway relinquished command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force on Sunday, as scheduled. He is expected to take a Pentagon job as director of operations on the Joint Staff.

Interesting. This is the classic problem of counterinsurgency: the most militarily effective solutions are often the least viable political ones.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.