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Why Obama wants to use air power against the Islamic State

August 9, 2014 at 7:21 PM EDT
In order to protect Americans and provide humanitarian aid to Iraq, President Obama on Saturday discussed efforts to slow advances by Islamic jihadists in northern Iraq and rescue thousands of civilians who have fled from them. Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the details.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Returning now to the day’s top story American efforts to slow advances by Islamic State jihadists in northern Iraq and to rescue thousands of civilians who have fled from them. For more, we are joined now from Washington by Douglas Ollivant, he is a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International.

So this morning we heard the president say that this is about two things the protection of Americans and about humanitarian aid, this wasn’t so much about dislodging the Islamic State group from the power that they’re already yielding in large portions of Iraq.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: I think that’s exactly right. The president wants to use air power and not U.S. boots on the ground in any engagement with the Islamic State. What he’s done is he’s set a condition where he can fulfill this promise.

Air power is very very good at dealing with attacking troops, you know you’re moving, you’re shooting, you’re creating a signature that can be seen from the air and therefore pretty easy for air power to engage targets like that that’s their element that’s what they do best.

When you start talking about pushing them out of cities, where they’re dug in or hidden in buildings air power has some real limitations and that would take ground troops and I don’t think the president is going to go there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright so the administration also said that so much of this is dependent on Iraq forming a government, so let’s say for example the best case scenario, Iraq forms a government, are they strong enough to combat this on their own?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: It really depends on the type of government that comes together and whether they can really get all three sides. All three sides have something to give here. The Kurds have some very very dedicated fighters in the north, they have a secure base there in the mountains that they could really push out of and we have you know we have assets working at the American consulate there.

The south has the bulk of the American equipment that remains, the artillery pieces, the tanks, the armored personnel carriers and a large manpower pool from the south that they could use to push north and then of course the Sunni groups are in the midst of this and they could really become a fifth column for ISIS internally, so you can get all three of these groups working together that would be the key, but the Iraqis need to move quickly to take the next steps to form their government.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Today the president said this could be something that’s certainly not solved in weeks, it could be a long-term situation. What kind of timeline is likely, and in the meantime does the Islamic State group just strengthen its hold on the places it already had?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Lamentably that may be the case. The Iraqi president, who’s been elected, there’s a new president and should be appointing a, or designating someone to form a government here in the near future.

They’re still wrangling over that, but he has taken every day of the 15 days of the constitutional laws depending on how you count holidays and Sundays, he’s either just under or just over that deadline. Hopefully we’ll see some announcement in the next day or two.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And on the humanitarian front, how complicated is it to create that corridor of safety if all we’re protecting it is from the skies? How do we get those people off the mountain and into a safe area?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: I think it’s going to be a stretch to call it a safe corridor, it may be a safer corridor when protected from the air, but air power can only do so much and to say that they’ll have total safety moving from the mountain into evidently the Kurdish area of Syria is not something I think we can guarantee; safer, but not safe.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the humanitarian front we’ve had some partners from Europe say they’re willing to help, on the military front is that unlikely or the same?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: I think very unlikely, certainly on the humanitarian front we’ll get assistance but I don’t see anyone willing to step up and help with the justification that we have right now. Our justification for the airstrikes is protecting American forces in Baghdad and Irbil other governments may not have that excuse.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Doug Ollivant, thanks so much.