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How effective will airstrikes be against the Islamic State?

As the administration rallies public support in the U.S. for conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, how effective will strikes be without boots on the ground? Austin Long, Assistant Professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more analysis.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For more about the war on the Islamic State, we're joined now by Austin Long, he's a professor at Columbia University's School of International Public Affairs — previously he was an advisor to the multinational force in Iraq.

    There seems to be in public opinion polls support for airstrikes but not for ground troops and that seems to be the plan the president is following at the moment. How effective can airstrikes be without intelligence on the ground that can verify what's happening and gather more intelligence on the ground to verify what's happening and gather more intelligence on whether you're going to do the right thing or not.

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    It's very difficult to conduct effective airstrikes without some ground presence. Fortunately, at least in Iraq, the U.S. has some ground presence in the form of advisors, there's probably also intelligence officers, thing like that.

    And you can also collect a lot of intelligence with assets of drones. There can be some effectiveness, but the big question is who are going to be the boots on the ground that take the territory that airstrikes sort of open up opportunities to seize.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    That record has been mixed at best when it comes to Iraqi forces staying through the fight.

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    Absolutely. The Iraqi security forces particularly are very mixed. Their special operations units are actually quite effective and have fought very well within the limitations that they have. But there is only a few thousand of them.

    The vast bulk of the Iraqi military suffers from a lot of weaknesses and the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have fought better, still have their own weaknesses as well. There are real questions as to who's going to be the effective boots on the ground.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So ISIL, ISIS, the Islamic State, they still control major cities. How do you from the air try and clear some of those cities when these guys can go just back into the civilian population?

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    It's very challenging. Even with the United States having tens of thousands of troops in Iraq at the height of the surge, we weren't able to completely eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is sort of the predecessor of the Islamic State.

    They hung on and had a presence in Mosel throughout the entire time the U.S. was there – even if it was a much lower-level presence. It's very challenging to clear that kind of presence out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the longer term concerns is the training that we would provide, or especially the equipment that we would provide in this fight. I mean sometimes the equipment is used against us – a backlash when it falls into the wrong hands. How do we protect against that?

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    It's extremely challenging. People talk about training up the Iraqi security forces. We had a big endeavor to do that for years in Iraq and yet we saw the collapse in Mosel and the seizure of a lot of equipment.

    The key is to build up the capabilities of the organization before you just dump a lot of weapons on it. And that's also, I think, a risk across the border in Syria with trying to arm Syrian rebels is you have the possibility that without building up the organization, you dump weapons on them, the Islamic State can just take them from them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Speaking of Syria, when you go across that border, who is left to be the ally there? Because it seems that they've been on the one hand degraded by president Bashar al-Assad's forces, on the other hand they've been degraded by ISIL.

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    Yeah. There's really just a fragmented selection of militias there that will have to be rebuilt into something that resembles an army.

    So whatever the challenges in Iraq are in terms of providing support to potential local ground forces, I think the challenge is much greater in Syria.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let's talk about timeline here, I mean the president said let's brace ourselves for a long-term engagement. How long is this going to take?

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    It's going to take a very long time. I think years would be pretty generous. Now, years would be to completely defeat the group. I think you can make real progress in taking some of these key cities back in a much shorter timeline, but it's still not going to be days or weeks. It's going to be probably months to years.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And that's in both Iraq and Syria?

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    I think Syria even more challenging. I mean, the Islamic State is much stronger in most of the rebel groups there. Rebuilding them into something like a functioning army, I think, will take a very long time.

    You can launch strikes in Syria without rebuilding those forces, but then you're at least indirectly going to benefit president Assad's regime.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Austin Long from Columbia University's School of International Public Affairs, thanks so much.

  • AUSTIN LONG:

    Thank you for having me.

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