Iraqis and Kurds Counterattack as Air Strikes Batter Islamic State
But the militants could regroup
Just 10 days ago, Islamic State’s advance through Iraq seemed unstoppable. The militants had routed the Iraqi army and captured its American-supplied armor and artillery.
Now U.S. air strikes have helped to halt the Islamists. But that doesn’t mean Islamic State is finished. This war probably is just beginning.
In June, a surprise Islamic State offensive captured large swathes of northern Iraq. The crisis escalated in early August. The militants captured the strategic Mosul Dam from the Kurds on Aug. 7. The vaunted Kurdish Peshmerga fighters—who have battled Iraq, Iran and Turkey for years—held the line briefly before collapsing.
As the Pesh retreated, Islamic State fighters chased tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees up Mount Sinjar, raping and killing hundreds.
But then the Americans intervened. On Aug. 8, Navy and Air Force fighters struck Islamic State’s vehicles and artillery. There appear to have been more than 40 air strikes by fighters, bombers and drones over the last week, including around 25 over the weekend of Aug. 16 and another 15 on Aug. 18.
U.S. Central Command claimed the Aug. 18 strikes alone destroyed or damaged nine ISIL “fighting positions,” a checkpoint, six armed vehicles, a light armored vehicle, an anti-aircraft gun and an “IED emplacement belt.”
Stiffened by American air support, Kurdish and Iraqi forces counter-attacked, retaking the Mosul Dam and other areas from the militants. The Kurds reportedly have been able to retake several villages near their capitol Irbil.
As this this graphic illustrates, mid-August has been rough for Islamic State. A whirlwind advance through northern Iraq has been halted and pushed back. Perhaps just as significant, Iraqi troops are attempting to wrest control of Tikrit, a key city north of Baghdad.
It’s not clear what losses the fundamentalists have suffered, but it does appear that their momentum has slowed—or even reversed.
So has the tide turned against Islamic State?
Not so fast. Like the old saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Islamic State is far from done.
U.S. air power seems to have changed the battlefield balance … for now. But warplanes can’t save Baghdad or the Kurds. Many Islamic State fighters have experience fighting in places where their enemies had air superiority, such as Iraq, Syria and Chechnya.
They know how to disperse their vehicles, camouflage their positions and mingle with the civilian population so that pilots can’t identify them.
The Syrian regime has been leveling entire neighborhoods with barrel bombs and still can’t suppress the rebels. American aircraft, with far less freedom to ignore collateral damage than the Syrian air force, are not going to defeat the Islamists, as even the Pentagon admits.
“These strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria,” one U.S. commander told reporters.
Pentagon videos show U.S. aircraft attacking Islamic State vehicles and artillery. Given what appears to be a small number of strike aircraft, it makes sense to hit big, high-value targets like the militants’ captured tanks.
However, Islamic fighters didn’t need heavy weaponry to rout Iraqi and Kurdish troops earlier this summer. Riding in gun-armed pickup trucks, the militants struck fast and hard at selected points, perhaps following the tactical advice of sympathetic former Iraqi army officers who are fellow Sunnis.
Destroying a bunch of tanks that the Islamists didn’t initially possess doesn’t address the fundamental problem in Iraq. Which is that Islamic State is much better organized and motivated than its opponents.
Iraqi forces disintegrated in June when their leaders fled. The Peshmerga, long accustomed to waging guerrilla warfare in the mountains, were unprepared for the more conventional offensive the Islamic State waged.
Having grabbed so much terrain so quickly, the militants perhaps were over-extended, making them vulnerable to counterattack. But once the initial elation of the successful counterattack wears off, the hard work begins for the Iraqi government and the Kurds.
American air power can help—and so can fresh shipments of weapons. But to truly beat Islamic State, both the Iraqis and Kurds need need to adapt.
Iraqi forces need battlefield leaders, not political appointees. The Kurds need to transition from guerrilla warfare to the methodical, painstaking work of waging conventional military operations that include tanks and air support.
Until then, the Islamic State will remain a threat.
At top—a U.S. Navy F/A-18F fighter launches from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. Navy photo.