U.S. Launches Biggest Air Operation Since Invasion End
CNN is reporting that the U.S. military has launched the largest Iraqi air assault since the end of major combat operations.
U.S. and Iraqi forces on Thursday launched the largest air assault operation since the invasion of Iraq nearly three years ago, the U.S. military said. More than 50 aircraft are involved in Operation Swarmer, supporting more than 1,500 Iraqi and U.S. troops near Samarra, about 75 miles (121 kilometers) north of Baghdad. The aircraft also delivered troops from the Iraq and U.S. Army to “multiple objectives.”
The offensive began Thursday morning in southern Salaheddin province “to clear a suspected insurgent operating area northeast of Samarra,” the site of the bombing of the Shiite shrine that escalated sectarian tensions and pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
This is in line with Tuesday’s Knight-Ridder report that our airstrikes have been quietly increasing over the past few months. In response, Kevin Drum observed, “Bombs don’t beat insurgencies. The fact that we’re increasing our reliance on them is bad news.”
I agree that heavy reliance on bombing at this stage of the operation is bad news, because it is further indication that there are still large rebel strongholds. On the tactical side, though, while defeating an insurgency requires more than military means, I disagree that bombing can not be an effective tool. We’re not fighting a pure insurgency but a hybrid war against al Qaeda and other terrorists, sectarian troublemakers, and true political insurgents. Targetted strikes against base camps and logistical support facilities make some sense.
Further, winning a war–against any type of enemy–requires a combination of defeating their hostile ability and their hostile will. The former requires killing their soldiers, blowing up their facilties, and otherwise making it hard for them to fight effectively. The latter, which often requires the former as a precursor, involves convincing the enemy that, to borrow a phrase from the Borg, further resistance is futile. Properly executed air strikes can help in both these phases.
Moreover, highly visible action is sometimes necessary for maintaining the will to fight on one’s own side. The constant barrage of terroristic bombing conducted by the enemy has done very little to effect the hostile ability of the Coalition–2700 dead is tragic on a personal level but negligible strategically–but has weakened the confidence of the Iraqi and American publics. These bombing strikes could help reverse that, giving visible evidence that we’re fighting back effectively and reminding the enemy that he is militarily outmatched.
The ultimate resolution of this war, as with any other, will be political. While things look much more bleak on that front than I would have forecast at the point when we toppled Saddam’s regime, there has nonetheless been substantial progress. David Ignatius points out in today’s WaPo, “[T]here are unmistakable signs here this week that Iraq’s political leaders are taking the first tentative steps toward forming a broad government of national unity that could reverse the country’s downward slide.”
Operation Swarmer may be the boost we need to help see that through. It will certainly be much easier to cobble together a working political system if the parties have some degree of confidence that they will be able to maintain some basic level of physical security.
Update: It appears that I let the reports of the previous strikes color my understanding of this op, the early reporting of which (at least in print/online) sources was quite sketchy. As a couple of commenters have pointed out below, this looks to be a mostly Army-based operation involving helicopters and ground troops. There are apparently no bombers involved, nor even AC130 gunships.
The updated AP report appears to be backing away from the earlier implication that this was primarily a bombing mission, noting that, “There was no immediate word on whether any fighter jets or other fixed-wing warplanes had dropped bombs or fired missiles as part of the assault.” They go on to write,
In its description of the operation, the 101st Airborne Division used the term “air assault,” which refers to the use of attack and transport helicopters to move infantry soldiers to a ground target or group of targets. It does not generally include fixed-wing warplanes like fighter jets or bombers, and there was no early indication that such planes played a predominant role in the assault.
None of that colors my analysis of the general escalation of air strikes reported by Knight Ridder, but the juxtaposition that and a land based operation is confusing.