Finding Islamic State militants to kill is not easy, the top U.S. commander overseeing the air war in Iraq and Syria said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hesterman says U.S. pilots are hitting as many targets as they can find, and to suggest otherwise is simply wrong.
"The thought that we are observing large numbers of Daesh terrorist and not killing them anywhere is fiction," Hesterman said Friday in a rare briefing for Pentagon reporters from his headquarters in Qatar.
Hesterman was pushing back on a growing sentiment in Washington and elsewhere that the American-led coalition's air war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is ineffective, not aggressive enough and one key piece of the Obama administration's anti-ISIS strategy that needs a fundamental overhaul.
The tactics underlying the air war have come under scrutiny since the Islamic State group seized control Ramadi on May 17, its biggest battlefield victory in nearly a year. Despite assurances that the airstrikes would prevent the Islamic State group from amassing large formations, the militants assembled what U.S. officials described as up to 800 fighters to force the Iraqi army out of the city.
Ratcheting up the air campaign tops the list for many critics of the current strategy.
"I think it's become abundantly clear that what we're doing is not working and I think it is time to amp up a couple of different things," said James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who is now dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Number one would be increasing the lethality and frequency of the bombing campaign."
President Obama's critics suggest the air war — averaging about 60 bombs dropped a day — is having little real impact on the battlefield.
"It's more symbolic than effective," said Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
So far the White House and Pentagon have signaled no major changes to the current strategy, which also involves about 3,000 U.S. troops deployed on the ground to train, advise and assist the Iraqi army.
But that may change as the White House comes to grips with the Islamic State group's new momentum that belied U.S. officials' rosy assessments of steady progress and claims of putting the Sunni extremist group on the defensive.
Hopes are fading that Iraqi forces will quickly retake Ramadi. Both the Sunni militants and the Iraqi government forces have consolidated their positions and fighting in Ramadi now is limited to "low-level engagements and skirmishes on the perimeter," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, on Thursday.
"The fall of Ramadi is what really brought this to a head," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
Obama "has basically settled into a period of paralysis and stagnation in progress in the situation, but that has only been apparent for a month," O'Hanlon said.
"I think [Obama and his team] are coming to terms with the reality that their expectations were off. It's really only now, in the last few days, where they are in a position where they have to figure out what do to," O'Hanlon said.
O'Hanlon suggested the White House should consider sending several thousand additional special operations forces into Iraq to help the Iraqi army gain momentum.
Stavridis, who served under Obama as the supreme allied commander in Europe, said he understands Obama's instinct to keep American service members out of harm's way. Nevertheless, Stavridis believes the crisis in Iraq will require more airstrikes, more weapons shipments to the Iraqis and an expanded footprint of up to 10,000 American troops on the ground.
"I'm sympathetic to the view that, if we don't have to deploy any more U.S. troops and we can roll back the Islamic State, that would be terrific. But that's not my assessment and I don't think it's an assessment that is supported by the facts on the ground, Stavridis said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, the top U.S. commander overseeing the air war in Iraq and Syria, said called Iraq today "the most complex area of battle" that he as seen in 32 years.
Photo Credit: Defense Department
Hesterman downplayed the Islamic State victory in Ramadi. "They have achieved tactical advances. Let's not give them credit for a strategic victory –— that is not what's happening."
The general called Iraq today "the most complex area of battle that I've seen in 32 years."
"It's never been more difficult to identify friend or foe as it is right now in Iraq," Hesterman said.
From just a short distance, today's Islamic State fighters look identical to our Iraqi allies, as all of them are wearing the same uniforms and driving the same American-made vehicles," Hesterman said.
It's not uncommon for U.S. pilots to identify a military target they think is ISIS but further review determines that it is an Iraqi unit.
"Imagine if those strikes had been made, even a fraction of them — what we call 'blue-on-green' fratricide — in my opinion the coalition would have unwound some time ago," Hesterman said.
Yet Hesterman stopped short of saying he needs American troops operating on the ground to provide detailed, current targeting information. Usually that is airmen known as joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs.
"U.S. and coalition JTACs are always value added. … Would it be helpful? Probably. Is it necessary? Not so far. And [CENTCOM Commander Army Gen. Lloyd] Austin and Chairman [of the Joint Staff Gen. Martin] Dempsey have been pretty clear that if they determine that it is necessary they will ask or it."
Some experts believe Obama has no intention widening his military commitment to Iraq and plans to kick the can down the road, leaving a slate of hard decisions for the next president.
"I see no signs of reassessment of the strategy," Rubin said. "We're going to be passing the buck across administrations in a way that is ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests."
A top U.S. official offered a timeline that clearly pushes the fight against the Islamic State group into the next administration.
"We have conceived a three-year plan and we're nine months into it," Anthony Blinken, the State Department's number two official, told a French radio station in Paris during a conference of the anti-Islamic State coalition in early June.
Stavridis acknowledged that Obama is probably reluctant to make that commitment, but added that a lot can happen in the next year and a half.
"If the situation stabilizes and they can muddle through, they will probably choose that," he said.
"But my sense is that the events on the ground are going to drive this. And despite the desires of the administration to avoid putting anybody else into Iraq, if the situation deteriorates any further, they are going to have to."
"This is definitely something the next administration is going to have to grapple with, and because the new administration will have a longer runway to deal with it, and I hope they will be centrist and willing to exercise U.S. military power, I'm actually more hopeful about the next administration," Stavridis said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.