Photo from Operation Inherent Resolve
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—It was in defense of the Kurdistan Region’s capital Erbil that the United States carried out its first air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2014. In the preceding two months the group had become infamous following its seizure of Mosul and the surrounding areas, as Iraqi Army units simply abandoned their arms and vehicles and fled, and subsequent declaration of a caliphate which straddles the Iraqi-Syrian borders shortly thereafter.
Since that time the US has established a coalition and under the banner of Operation Inherent Resolve sought to destroy ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Relying heavily on precision airstrikes the coalition seeks to bolster ground forces in both countries in hopes of rolling back and eventually destroying the caliphate. And it appears to be having an effect on ISIS.
Rudaw English recently spoke with one US military official involved in coordinating the air strikes and the larger anti-ISIS campaign. He is optimistic about the incremental successes the coalition have had against the group to date.
“We’re leading a coalition of more than 60 countries and we have been doing it for 18 months now,” he explained, “During the last nine months ISIS has lost Baiji, they lost Sinjar, they lost Ramadi. We’ve been there every step of the way with more than 6500 airstrikes. And while there is still a long road ahead and Daesh [ISIS] is still a viable enemy we feel good about what the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces have been able to achieve so far. They have had a tough up until now but have proven themselves on the battlefield.”
More generally the official sees more clear indicators that American-led efforts are afflicting mortal blows. He pointed out that early on in the war ISIS was able to apply constant and direct pressure on the front-lines of the Peshmerga, “This has steadily transitioned into more indirect fire, like rockets and mortars. That’s generally a sign that the enemy is weaker because they believe if they fire mortars they can move before they can be intercepted by the Peshmerga or by us through our airstrikes.”
That’s not the only indicator of a weakened ISIS. Before, the official pointed out, “ISIS was moving in platoon formations. They were well trained and well disciplined. As a result of our continuous airstrikes coordinated with Peshmerga operations against them we have seen that change. The attrition rate caused by these strikes have forced ISIS to change its tactics. They are no longer moving in platoon formations but instead in smaller groups, who tend to be less trained and less disciplined.”
Add to this the broadening of coalition targets to include assets related to ISIS’s financial base to economically cripple the group. This also, the official argues, has produced results which indicate that the group is being exponentially weakened.
“We’ve seen open source reports of Daesh cutting salaries in half, taxing locals in their territories, selling stolen properties,” he added, “The pressure has led to an increase in paranoia, you can see open source reports which show that they are increasingly executing people who don’t abide by their commands, arresting people they suspect of espionage. These are all signs of the damaging effects our airstrikes are having on them.”
When ISIS declared its caliphate from Mosul in the summer of 2014 Iraq-analyst Michael Knights noted that they went overnight from being, “the world’s richest terrorist organization to the world’s poorest state.”
This proved to have substantial strategic ramifications for the coalition. Relying heavily on airpower alone to fight a non-conventional and elusive adversary using guerrilla tactics can prove extremely difficult. However, as the US military official pointed out, in its attempts to carve out a state ISIS has had to act more like a conventional army and come out into the open to fight to defend their territory.
“Daesh cannot just fight in an unconventional manner all the time and expect to successfully defend their territory so they have to come out and fight,” he explained, “and we weed them out through airstrikes, we weed them out through successful ground operations by the Peshmerga and then we strike them. We’ve had a lot of success.”
All of this is done under strict rules-of-engagement with military lawyers reviewing targets before coalition airpower are authorized to strike. “There are all sorts of things we look for when we conduct airstrikes,” he added. “Of course we want to minimize the risk of civilian casualties so our strikes go through a very rigorous approval process.”
This, he said, doesn’t necessarily hamper the effectiveness of the coalition to cripple ISIS, “We’re able to accomplish everything we need to accomplish under the rules-of-engagement we adhere to. This I think is clearly evidenced by the successful weakening of the group and the successful offensives we’ve supported in recent months.”