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Jeffrey Collins: The Continuing Seduction of Airpower

The longing for American airpower by the Maliki regime in Iraq merits a more contextual analysis than what has been provided thus far. I contend that the thirst for an American intervention from above is the reflection of a longstanding view which posits airpower as a quick solution for winning wars.

As early as 1911, when aircraft were first used in warfare  (by Italy against Libya), a chorus of writers (often pilots) have articulated visions of planes flying over enemy territory, pulverising a variety of cities and armies until capitulation – without the use of ground forces. Given the slaughter of World War One, it is not surprising that such opinions took root.

Thus, it was an Italian General (a 1911 veteran and witness to WW1), Guilio Douhet, who first popularized the notion of airpower’s potential for quick success with his 1921 book The Command of the Air. Douhet was soon followed by other ‘practitioner-theorists’: Billy Mitchell, Hugh Tranchard, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and most recently, John Warden and John Boyd. Each writer pushed the idea of aircraft winning wars decisively with little expense in friendly blood or treasure (at least on land).

This idea remains an attractive proposition for democratic political leaders whose publics have become rather adverse to casualties. The notion of airpower as a quick fix remains even more seductive given the emergence of precision-guided munitions, stealth technology, and digital information systems, first displayed in the 1991 Gulf War. The footage from that conflict, fostered an anti-septic view of warfare among the public. Of course, this perception conveniently ignored the fact that it took a half-​a-​million US and allied ground troops to evict Saddam’s army from Kuwait.

Next, was Kosovo in 1999 where NATO, in an attempt to avoid deploying ground forces and jeopardize public opinion, carried out an aerial bombing campaign to bring Serbia to heel. While NATO thought it could compel Belgrade in four days, it took 78, Serbia’s diplomatic isolation, and the threat of a ground force to broker a retreat. Furthermore, the quick Serb withdraw created a chaotic vacuum that thousands of NATO troops continue to fulfill to this day.

While the seduction of airpower is tempting airpower’s history remains one of great promise that, instead, masks a more complicated reality where well thought-out political and ground force decisions are required. In the case of Iraq, more is required than quick fixes from above.

The Hustings


Jeff Collins: Paper tigers and the failure of ‘Iraqization’

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced the beginning of the American withdrawal from South Vietnam. In exchange for removing half-a-million military personnel the United States would funnel billions of dollars in equipment to the South Vietnamese military so that it could prosecute the war against the North, a process known as ‘Vietnamization’. In doing so, the South Vietnamese armed forces emerged as one of the world’s most formidable militaries. But yet it was a paper tiger, collapsing a mere two years after the removal of the last American military forces in 1973.

Like the South Vietnamese military before it, on paper the post-Saddam Hussein military of Iraq is impressive: 250,000 troops backed by 2500 armoured vehicles, 400 tanks, 278 aircraft, and 129 helicopters. Following an almost identical approach as that used by Nixon, both the Bush and Obama administrations focused on building up the Iraqi military so that it could take the lead in fighting the insurgency in exchange for an American withdrawal in 2011.

‘Iraqization’ saw the U.S. spend, between 2003 and September 2012, $25 billion on creating, equipping, and training the Iraqi armed forces. The Iraqi government itself spent billions more – via a U.S. aid package – on purchasing F-16 jets, Apache gunships, precision Hellfire missiles, M-16 assault rifles, ScanEagle reconnaissance drones, and M1A1 Abram tanks; essentially, the same equipment used by the U.S. military.

What remains remarkable in light of last week’s events is how none of this really mattered. Four of the country’s 14 army divisions practically folded in the face of less than 1,500 ISIS militants, who were outnumbered 15-to-one. As such, the problem of Iraqization, much like it’s South Vietnam predecessor, is that it tried to establish a unified, nation-building professional military model onto a politically unstable government.

In short, the failure of the U.S. in not accounting for, or at least ensuring prolonged stabilized communal relations on the political dimension after 2011 automatically undermined the military effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces which have turned into, what one observer calls, a Shia army on steroids, targeting the Sunni minority.

Sadly, the failure of the Iraqization approach is not limited to Mesopotamia. The United States has seen a similar repetition of blowback in other communal, conflict-riven countries: Mali, Libya, and Afghanistan. While American airstrikes may halt the ISIS tide the absence of a serious political compromise between Iraq’s communities ensures more bloodshed and fracturing.

The Hustings


Tom Stringham: Obama’s clueless in Iraq, but who can blame him?

Chaos has broken out in Iraq again, and if there’s blame to go around, the President of the United States deserves a portion. His decision to evacuate Iraq of combat troops in 2011 has enabled a resurgence of brutal Sunni extremists, who now control most of the country’s northwest.

But while it’s true, as commentators have been shouting, that Obama’s foreign policy instincts are mediocre at best, he deserves the credit of noting that he is playing one of the trickiest geopolitical games in recent history—perhaps in the history of the United States.

Obama came into office while the American engagement in Iraq was still ongoing. The war was extraordinarily unpopular at home and abroad, and there was something to be said for bringing the troops home. On the other hand, the young Iraqi government was untested, and ran the risk of eventual collapse without American combat assistance. However, on yet another hand, the state was as stable as it had been since 2003, and was becoming stabler. American and Iraqi troops had routed the insurgents and killed their leadership. Answers were not clear in 2011, however it looks to us now.

Obama still faces an orgy of contradictions. American interests are certainly to maintain the integrity of the democratic Iraqi state it left behind. But to rout ISIS once more, the US would likely need to send in ground troops, which would make for political chaos back home. However, if the US doesn’t send in the army, it will appear to be relying on Iran to fight the Sunni rebels. An alliance with Iran, which sponsors Bashar Assad, Hezbollah and radical Shia groups across the Middle East, would be another nightmare for the US.

What’s more is that Obama is dealing with a marvellously incompetent leader in Nouri Al-Maliki. Any aid to his government in supplies or weapons will likely come to nothing while he is Prime Minister. But an attempt to force him out of office would be difficult and harmful to the United States’ reputation, and would mean American culpability for whatever chaos a new Iraqi leader would inevitably bring about.

None of this is to mention the powderkegs nearby: an unstable Afghanistan, an emboldened Hamas in the West Bank and Syria, with its ongoing civil war.

Yes, Obama has been shown unequal to the task of navigating the Middle East. But who on earth is equal to it?

The Hustings