Can air power alone stop advance of Islamic State militants?

While Islamic State forces seem poised to take the border town of Kobani, President Obama and military leaders are weighing what more can be done to combat the militants marching toward Turkey. Judy Woodruff gets analysis from Michèle Flournoy, a former Defense Department official, and retired Col. Derek Harvey, a former Army Intelligence officer, on the effectiveness of the U.S.-led fight.

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    President Obama's meeting at the Pentagon today comes as there are considerable doubts over whether the U.S.-led coalition can stop and roll back the Islamic State group's advances.

    To help assess the campaign against the militant group, I'm joined by Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy during the first term of the Obama administration. She's now chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security. And Colonel Derek Harvey, he was an intelligence officer and special adviser to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He's now director for the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida.

    And welcome both of you back to the program.

    Colonel Harvey, to you first.

    The reports we had earlier in the program are that it looks as if the town of Kobani on Syria's border with Turkey may be about to fall to the Islamic State. Is that what you're hearing and, if so, how big a loss is this?

    COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), Former Army Intelligence Officer: Well, I think that's what is happening in Kobani.

    And it's unfortunate for that population there. There is significant offensive activity by the Islamic State. They're using combined arms. That's tanks, mortars, artillery and infantry. And they're coming in on the city from at least three directions.

    It is expected to fall some time in the next three to five days, according to the sources that I'm talking to.


    And how big a loss, Michele Flournoy, if this happens?

  • MICHELE FLOURNOY, Former Defense Department Official:

    I think it's worsened because it is right up against the Turkish border, and that will ISIS that much more room to operate along the border and possibly even do cross-border incursions in some areas.

    But — so it's of concern, but I think we have to be realistic in our expectations. This campaign, no matter how effective, is not going to be able to stop every ISIS movement or to roll them back in every place. Where we need to focus is really on the most strategic areas and, importantly, building up the ground forces that can retake and hold territory. Airpower alone cannot do that.


    And, in fact, Secretary of State Kerry said today, was quoted as saying that it wouldn't be a strategic defeat if Kobani goes down.

    Colonel Harvey, do you agree with that?


    Well, I think it's significant if Kobani goes down, just like it's significant when we lost Mosul.

    And you have the humanitarian crisis that will ensue from that, and massacres. And we have the capability to intercede at this point to have an impact, like we didn't take in the case of the Yazidis.

    I don't think we need to fight everyplace, but it's clear that the air campaign is, in my judgment as a professor at the University of South Florida, if I was to give this campaign a grade to date, I would say it's a D, maybe a D-plus. It lacks intensity. It isn't driving the enemy in a way that we need it to. It's taken some initiative away. It's degraded them some, but, overall, ISIS continues to act like a Pac-Man in the video game, gobbling up territory in Syria and in Iraq.

    And that's something that is going to continue to happen unless we change the air campaign's posture, increase intensity, resourcing and improve intelligence.


    Michele Flournoy, what does it say that this town and other parts of Syria and Iraq are going down, despite this air campaign on the part of the U.S. and its allies?


    Well, I do agree that we should ramp up the intensity of the air campaign and try to be more proactive and get out ahead of some of ISIS' movement and so forth.

    But the real — what's really going to make a difference on the ground is when the Iraqis are able, with our help and our support, to really start engaging on the ground, when the Kurds and when the Syrian opposition forces are able to engage on the ground. The problem is, that is going to take time. Reconstituting those forces, enabling them to be fully effective is going to take some time. And that's the frustrating part right now.


    And what does that time, that waiting time mean, Colonel Harvey?


    Well, I think we're really looking at a year or more, and that's going to be unfortunate for the people of Iraq and in Syria, but it's also going to give the Islamic State a great deal of opportunity to entrench themselves, to improve their capabilities, and make it that much harder for us to dig them out in these communities that they're becoming well-entrenched in, in Iraq and in Syria.

    A year or more is too long, and we just have not put the resources in place to support building the Iraqi security forces or partnering with Sunni-Arab tribes in both Iraq and in Syria in order to build the capability for a force on the ground that we can work with.

    It's a missing component and there's just not enough energy and effort into this at this point.


    Michele Flournoy, does this put pressure on the administration to either find a way to get boots, either boots on the ground by the U.S. or get boots on the ground faster by countries in the region?


    I think the pressure is to actually move the advise and assist and training with the Iraqis faster and, actually, as Colonel Harvey said, to more fully engage the Sunni tribes, to try to get them to start taking on ISIL.

    I don't think the answer is large conventional U.S. ground units, because, ultimately, you have got to have the indigenous folks on the ground owning this for it to be a sustainable outcome.


    Colonel Harvey, what are you hearing about — again, you talk to people in the military. What are they saying about how they view the success of this air campaign?

    And from another perspective, we're hearing now complaints of a different sort in Iraq, the U.S. employing Apache helicopters, something that wasn't expected. What is the perspective you're hearing from folks you talk to?


    Well, what I hear is that there's incredible frustration about the inability to bring the resources to bear to this fight that we have that we can engage with.

    The intensity, as Michele has talked about, is not there. We don't even have AC-130 gunships being employed, which are ideal for this type of combat in this type of a theater. So there's a lot left of capability being left on the table that commanders would like to be able to engage in order to improve the air campaign.

    Secondly, the attack aviation that came out of Baghdad International Airport, U.S. aviation in an attack manner is incredibly important in this environment and it's a capability that they would like to have, but it brings risk. The risk is that helicopters are more vulnerable to ground fire.

    If you lose a helicopter in this environment, you are going to have to have a quick reaction force to get in there and extract those people. You are going to need medevac. That puts all of those other elements at risk. You need those capabilities in place.

    I'm afraid we could wind up with a Mogadishu-type incident, where you have a situation that doesn't play well in the international media and domestically at home. It's a significant problem if we do this.


    I hear you.

    I do quickly want to come back, Michele Flournoy, to his comment that the folks in the military are telling him that there is capacity that is being left on the table by the U.S.


    I think that's often true in operations. The question is, you know, aligning that with a strategy.

    And I think here there has to be a discussion about whether there's more we should be doing, whether the risk of doing more is acceptable, and whether it really fundamentally changes that timeline. Can we get to real progress against ISIS on the ground inside of a year, not waiting a full year, but bringing that timeline forward? That's the real question.


    Tough questions.

    Michele Flournoy, Colonel Derek Harvey, we thank you.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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