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Beyond the rhetoric: Bombing Daesh (ISIS)

Last week, I wrote about the presidential campaign rhetoric pledging to “carpet bomb” Daesh (ISIS), focusing on what it really means and why it is now generally irrelevant to the problems at hand. Today, I want to return to the present problems in more detail: What can be bombed? To what lasting end? And how has Daesh responded to our bombing thus far?

Always begin with some history. Daesh was born from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) whose surviving members went to ground during the so-called surge campaign in Iraq from 2007 to 2009. AQI survivors selected new leaders to replace the dead, moved their considerable funds into cyberspace, and awaited their next opportunity. Even as the United States withdrew from Iraq, the civil war in Syria heated up, and the combination of chaos and the sectarian cause of ousting Assad drew in Daesh. It initially funded itself from banked reserves, and then, as it became territorially successful in northern and eastern Syria, it expanded revenue operations into extortion, theft, expropriation of property, antiquities sales, “taxation,” and increasingly, oil production and sale—primarily to the population in Syria. Success in Syria led Daesh to invade western and northern Iraq from January to August 2014 which in turn led to a surge of revenue based on smuggling oil from the Ajeel oil fields near Tikrit.

In evaluating Daesh, it helps to lay out the key differences between it and Al-Qaeda. A foundational difference is the former’s insistence that an Islamic state (the caliphate) could and would be achieved in the immediate future, and indeed its leaders formally declared its existence in June 2014. Al-Qaeda had long argued for a future caliphate, but imagined it to be something that would happen much further in the future, for which they were igniting the embers. This difference is important for several reasons. One is that Daesh is now actually a territorial entity, a self-declared state, with its own flag and its own designated sovereign ruler. It controls a large population (somewhere between 3 and 8 million in Iraq and Syria, primarily in large cities), organizes its army into units, collects taxes and enforces law, and notoriously operates a substantial “public affairs” arm via social media. Al-Qaeda was and is a multinational cellular organization, operating from ungoverned spaces, but not in any way dependent on territory or a population base, nor did it mobilize large numbers of fighters. Another difference is that Daesh followers believe they are fulfilling an apocalyptic prophecy and that a final battle will occur when anti-Islam forces are lured into a climactic battle around the city of Dabiq.

All of this is relevant to bombing and presidential campaign rhetoric. What does one bomb to destroy Daesh? In most military strategies you can choose among attacking an opponent’s armed forces, their war making resources, or their will to continue fighting.

Daesh has a military of sorts and that would seem the most obvious target. Bombing it, however, is not as easy as it sounds. Since the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, insurgents throughout the world have learned to avoid detection as much as possible. By far the easiest environment in which to do so are cities, surrounded not only by the physical concealment of buildings, but also the humanitarian cover of a large civilian population. When US forces were operating on the ground in Iraq they were capable of calling in very precise firepower (both from the air, from helicopters, and from new forms of precision artillery) and could contain collateral damage relatively well (although never perfectly). Without forces in contact on the ground, air power is a far less certain instrument, however capable of precisely hitting a target. The exact grid coordinate of the right target, right now, is often unavailable. Indeed, when the United States did make mistakes during its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, quite often it was because targeting information was already outdated. The actual enemy had moved on. That sort of real time information requires forces in contact, or, increasingly, constant drone surveillance backed by armed platforms already tasked to the area of operations or mounted on the drone itself. For any of those conditions to exist, air bases need to be in relatively close proximity. Most of Daesh’s operations are occurring deep in the interior of Syria and Iraq, hampering the effectiveness of US bombing (which began in earnest in August 2014) until Turkey opened its airbases to that purpose in July 2015—almost a year later. American bombing, especially when in cooperation with Kurdish or Iraqi Army forces on the ground, has grown markedly more effective. But Daesh, like insurgents throughout history, continues to adapt, learning to hide from airstrikes, disperse its forces, and hide among the people.

Daesh has similarly adapted to air strikes on its war-making resources, in this case primarily their revenue stream, since they don’t “build” things on their own. The first adaptation was simply diversification; something it was doing from the beginning of the organization. US and allied forces are not about to start bombing the taxable population, nor the ancient cities being plundered by Daesh for artifacts to sell abroad. That leaves oil, something that Donald Trump has been trumpeting as what he would “bomb the shit” out of. Effectively bombing oil production, however, has long been a problem. As I mentioned in my last article, the allies in WWII struggled to effectively degrade German oil production, although they did eventually severely damage it. Bombing the oil fields themselves is relatively ineffective; well heads are not good targets; they are easily repaired; and the oil itself is still underground. The most vulnerable link in the chain of oil production and distribution is the refinery, where the oil is the most concentrated in the most fragile type of facility and where it is also being rendered into something more flammable. (Coincidentally, my father was assigned at the Pentagon to research this problem of targeting oil production back in the early 1980s; the details of such research remain classified, but historical examples make this conclusion clear.) US bombing and Iraqi forces’ actions removed the Ajeel oil fields (and the Baiji refinery) from Daesh hands in October 2015, and whatever oil revenue Daesh is raising now comes from fields in Syria. The Daesh operation may seem relatively profitable by the standards of what the world considers simply a terrorist organization, but in the larger scheme of things it is quite small. Their production is fully consumed by the local Syrian population (it is not being smuggled abroad for sale). Relatively small refineries, built on skids in a modular fashion and shipped in from the manufacturer in crates, can be set up on a very small footprint and are easy to camouflage or simply set up next to civilian facilities. (As an aside, however, I can only assume that US intelligence agencies are working with the manufacturers to identify their thermal signature.) Such modular refineries were apparently a key part of getting the Daesh oil operation in Syria going, although it is now hoped that no more are being delivered. Attacks have also been launched against convoys of oil trucks, to persuade the drivers of the dangers of such a job (such convoys have been leafleted first, and then bombed as the drivers flee).

Attacking Daesh’s will is more complicated, and its will to fight may indeed be its “center of gravity,” the thing most important to sustaining its war effort. Daesh is a low-tech, low-numbers operation, that recruits through international social media by hyping martyrdom and an opportunity for seemingly independent manhood for disaffected youth. What’s worse, its recruitment system hopes to generate independent lone wolf attacks abroad, something that bombing is only likely to make worse (especially when paired with Islamophobic political rhetoric).

So what does all this mean? It means that we are bombing Daesh, and indeed we are hitting all three prospective target types. We have hit some 16,000+ targets with 20,000 weapons at the cost of more than $5 billion. Many of the targets have been explicitly military, and the tempo and effectiveness of our attacks has been increasing in recent months, especially as our Kurdish and Iraqi partners on the ground have stepped up their own operations and we have provided more direct assistance in calling in air power. We have cut off their access to oil from Iraq and are degrading their ability to refine and distribute oil. Finally, we have attacked “will” primarily through targeted attacks on key leaders—both with commando raids and with drone strikes. Nevertheless, and despite the cost, it is as yet unclear whether any of these lines of attack will bring decisive victory. There are many variables in play here, and the history I have given is greatly simplified. But the one thing that should be clear from this discussion is that this is a campaign that requires patience. The conditions simply do not exist for shock, awe, or carpet bombing, however much certain candidates might wish to flex their rhetorical muscles.

Featured image: Ruins of Kobane in northern Syria. (c) RadekProcyk via iStock.

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