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The Cult of Air Power Won’t Destroy ISIS

Bluster about carpet bombing cities sidesteps important questions about rules of engagement and the Geneva Conventions.

Obliterate. Destroy. Bomb them into the stone age.

After nearly 15 years of war, we are used to this kind of bombast from warhawks and Republican candidates eager to make a muscular point on the debate dias. But now, particularly after the shocking attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, calls to “unleash” the full power of the U.S. military overseas—even if that means eliminating “cumbersome” and “restrictive” rules of engagement—have taken on a more realistic, if not mainstream urgency.

Led by a vanguard of camera-ready lawmakers and armchair generals, the march to “take the gloves off” is now punctuated with language that taps into real fears over domestic terrorism, government mistrust, and the prevailing cultural divide.

This was all too apparent during Tuesday’s GOP debate. When asked about his earlier remarks about “carpet bombing ISIS into oblivion,” Ted Cruz walked it back some but not all. “You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops,” he said, avoiding the obvious problem that the militants have strategically located themselves in cities. Donald Trump danced around a question about collateral damage in Syria, but when Rand Paul reminded him of the Geneva Conventions, he let it rip.

“So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”

It is in this milieu that the forever war pundit, the retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, thrives. In fact, he was so spun up on his own bravado after San Bernardino, he compared President Obama to a woman’s private parts on live television (Fox News suspended him). Still, he knows that other kinds of dirty words, like “lawyers” and “political correctness,” always hit their mark.

Our military has the resources to shatter ISIS, but political correctness has penetrated so deep into the Pentagon that, even should a president issue the one-word order, “Win!,” our initial actions would be cautious and halting … Instead of “leaning forward in the foxhole,” our leaders lean on lawyers.

Peters and others now have their sights trained on Raqqa, a major stronghold for ISIS. The city is a particularly horrific place, as described by recent refugees and brave journalists who report on forced marriages, crucifixions, beheadings and the brutality of the religious police. The predominantly Sunni community was a center of resistance against President Bashar Assad five years ago, but ISIS methodically took it over, sending families fleeing and an untold number to an early grave. Today, no unaccompanied women under 45 are permitted to leave the city. Children are stolen and trained as fighters. It’s a cage, a ripe target for Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs, according to the journalists, and now British, French, Russian and yes, U.S. airstrikes.

“When you say ‘Raqqa,’ the first thing people think of is ISIS,” said one member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), in a New Yorker interview. “They forget the hundreds of thousands of civilians, normal people like us. I am not a terrorist.”

But Ralph Peters thinks he is. In fact, to Peters, Raqqa is the perfect example of the rules of engagement serving as a tether on American might: “The generals who won World War II would start by leveling Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate’s capital, ” Peters blasted forth in a November op-ed. “Civilians would die, but those remaining in Raqqa have embraced ISIS, as Germans did Hitler. The jihadis must be crushed. Start with their ‘Berlin.’”

Nevermind that the strategic impact of the U.S. firebombing of German cities has been hotly contested over the decades with one consensus growing around the conclusion that its effects were exaggerated and largely inefficient-save for killing between 400,000 to 600,000 civilians. More recent examples, including Vietnam, and later Fallujah, would suggest that bombing—whether it be the “leveling” that Peters asks for, or the “precision” kind—is not a panacea.

But Peters’ hyperbole aside, the prevailing suggestion that the military has been “restricted” in striking at ISIS targets, encumbered by meddlesome lawyers, is worth noting, and dissecting.

“We’ve had incredible restrictions on what we call rules of engagement so, as a result, it takes layers to get approval for a target, it takes too much time, the enemy gets away on us, we’re not really going after the right targets,” contends retired Gen. Jack Keane, who after steering the U.S. military “surge” in Iraq, enjoys a regular perch on Fox News and serves as the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, an outfit run by serial interventionist Kim Kagan. So what are these “restrictions?” If they should be removed, what then? With the Department of Defense under pressure to step up its game against ISIS, TAC decided to ask several retired military officers.

The level of aggression used by the military has consequences, for the force itself, the people with whom the military force comes into contact, and the perspective of such by the larger community receiving reports about any given action,” said Dakota Wood, a former strategist for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command who now serves as a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“’Loose’ or permissive ROE may enable a military force to use force/violence more freely, perhaps reducing short term risk to the units/soldiers involved but it could also increase risk and jeopardize the mission by enabling what could be perceived as ‘wanton destruction,’” he added.

“It really depends on the context and what is to be achieved.’”

The Military’s Perception

Charlie Dunlap, a highly regarded former Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) and head of Duke’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, says he’s been hearing complaints for months about restrictions on airstrikes.

As of mid-November, the U.S-led coalition has carried out more than 8,247 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, with more than three-quarters, 6,443, conducted by Americans. It is not clear whether that figure includes strikes from the separate CIA drone war in Syria, which is targeting ISIS leadership in coordination with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) on the ground.

When Micah Zenko suggested earlier this year that the number of strikes were far below that of past U.S. operations in Iraq and even Bosnia, the response was swift and negative. Stories abounded about pilots returning from missions, their payloads intact. In response to a senator’s question December 9, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that 40 percent of sorties were returning without having fired their weapons.

The reason why is somewhere buried in the rhetoric, say the military experts who spoke with TAC. The rules of engagement (ROE) document is classified, so no one outside those cleared to see it knows what it is. Everything is based on hearsay.

But Dunlap believes the operation in Syria has been restrained by the White House targeting policy announced amid drone war criticisms in May 2013, which is more restrictive than the standard rules of engagement under the 1949 Geneva Conventions as they relate to civilians. Under those measures, attacks are prohibited if they “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

The 2013 policy standards and procedures call for “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” If this supersedes international law in the Syrian campaign, Dunlap says, then it is indeed hindering the military’s ability to take out ISIS, which is largely based in population centers like Raqqa, Dunlap told TAC. “Near certainty,” he said, is impossible.

What does seem clear is that a strategic misjudgment has been made in thinking that stricter rules than what the law requires would somehow earn support among the civilian populace in Syria and Iraq, not to mention among our European allies and even the American people,” Dunlap said.  “But there is no evidence that that has happened. The reality is that civilians suffer more when ISIS’s barbarism is allowed to persist, and thoughtful people realize that.”

The Pentagon did not return calls for comment. Meanwhile, stories about pilots hemmed in by “zero civilian casualty” rules are in ready supply. Despite assurances from the White House in 2014 that the “zero” policy did not apply to Syria and Iraq, Martha Raddatz at ABC News reported in November that she was told the opposite by officers at the Combined Joint Operations Center (CJOC) in Erbil, where “strike officers” who call in the attacks from the ground are headquartered.

About that time, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said he was “prepared” to loosen the rules of engagement, much like the new freedom to hit the ISIS oil trucks and tankers, but one can only guess at what he meant.

Dunlap doesn’t think it’s “the lawyers” constraining operations, but the generals reportedly required to approve each strike. “It represents a lack of trust in subordinates, and is inevitably cumbersome because it requires the continuous presence of a flag officer,” he said.

“It is amazing that the decision has been made that even colonels are not competent to make these kinds of warfighting judgments,” he added.

Still, retired military officers like Dunlap seem uncomfortable with the bumper sticker bloviations deployed by politicians and cable news pundits. And they know that strikes are only as good as the intelligence on the ground, and right now that’s lacking, with or without strict policies from Washington.

“Lawyers advise commanders but they are not in the chain of command and do not approve or disapprove targets,” charged David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and professor at the Center for Strategic Studies at Georgetown. “They provide expert advice but are not the problem despite what Ralph Peters might say.”

Maxwell says common laws of war under the Geneva conventions “are absolutely necessary if we are going to be a moral nation.” Without reason and morality, he added, “we will trend toward absolute war and that is not something as Americans we want to see.”

‘Everyone is bombing Raqqa now’

After about a decade of a deep dive into Vietnam—including never before seen documents in the National Archives and myriad interviews with Vietnamese in country about their experiences living under U.S. fire—investigative reporter Nick Turse thinks he knows what the aftermath of  “absolute war” looks like.

With a rush toward increasing the “body count” and pacifying a rebellion, the Vietnam-era “Operation Speedy Express” was the kind of gloves-off air and ground war that Peters talks about, and it did nothing to win the war. What it did was leave upwards of 7,000 civilians dead during a six month period in 1968 alone, according to one inspector general’s report and reporters on the ground.

“It is obvious from the evidence and records recovered that most of those killed in the Mekong Delta were civilians, because the rules of engagement were ignored,” Turse asserts. “The Delta was never pacified. The ultimate results speak for themselves — look who’s in control there today,” he added, noting the Communist government in Hanoi.

Turse and others blame “the cult of airpower” going back to the early 20th century for why the military thinks it can do better each time around. Abandoning carpet bombing for “precision strike” sounds like the modern solution, but even “smart bombs,” are a gross misrepresentation of reality, experts say. They are still vulnerable to weather conditions, jamming, and the subjectivity of the people calling in the strikes from the ground. As we saw recently with the U.S. bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, they can be deadly inaccurate.

Thinking people can disagree over how to handle ISIS. Dunlap and Maxwell say the military is in no rush for war in Syria but if they are tasked with going, they want to be able to “do it right.” Critics like Turse see intervention as provocation, the best recruiting tool ISIS could have. One thing they do agree on is that “taking the gloves off” to “level Raqqa” is the rhetoric of fools.

“Anyone who would advocate that we do not need [rules of engagement],” said Maxwell, “is not someone I would recommend quoting.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.