The self-declared Caliph of the Islamic State may have been wounded in a U.S. airstrike this past weekend. Nonetheless, the slow pace of the strikes is due in large part to a lack of human intelligence, concerns about civilian casualties, and procedural issues. As the New York Times reports:
News reports from Iraq said the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been wounded in one of the raids, but American officials said Sunday that they were still assessing his status […]The vast majority of bombing runs, including the weekend strike near Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, are now searching for targets of opportunity, such as checkpoints, artillery pieces and combat vehicles in the open. But only one of every four strike missions — some 800 of 3,200 — dropped its weapons, according to the military’s Central Command.In Syria, the United States has a very limited ability to gather intelligence to help generate targets. Many Islamic State training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities and other fixed sites were struck in the early days of the bombing, but the military’s deliberate process for approving other targets has frustrated several commanders […]“Air power needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle,” said David A. Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who planned the American air campaigns in 2001 in Afghanistan and in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The whole piece is worth a read as a portrait of the American air war in Iraq and Syria. It reinforces what we’ve suggested over the past couple months: that the plodding pace of the airstrikes is allowing ISIS to dig-in and reinforce its positions. Asymmetrical terror networks like ISIS, given sufficient time to prepare, can successfully withstand bombing from high-tech Western air forces. Look at Hezbollah’s ability to weather the storm of Israeli bombardment in 2006, for instance.One such solution to these challenges might be a decapitation strike. If entrenched military positions are too difficult to dig out, then the leadership can be targeted. But there are drawbacks to this approach as well. As Foreign Policy points out, one of the reasons we haven’t been able to kill more ISIS commanders is that when the U.S. left Iraq, many of our spies left too:
U.S. special operations forces and other intelligence officials are trying to build these contacts now, but on a much smaller scale and under very different circumstances. In Iraq, the U.S. military can rely somewhat on the intelligence sources of the Iraqi security forces, but in Syria there are even fewer reliable relationships.One exception is in Kobani, the Syrian-Turkish border town where the United States is working with the Syrian Kurdish fighters there to identify Islamic State targets to bomb.“The same thing is needed to hunt down Baghdadi,” Sanderson said. “When you kill the leader, it demonstrates that anyone is vulnerable.”
The article goes on to question the wisdom of that last statement. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are diffuse institutions, and there’s no evidence that killing Baghdadi will slow down ISIS. By making him into a martyr it might even galvanize support for ISIS. At the very least, the killing of Osama bin Laden doesn’t seem to have limited support for al-Qaeda. Nor has killing the more operationally minded “No. 3 al-Qaeda Operative” for the umpteenth time.And the challenge of finding top leaders may be harder than it once was. ISIS seems to have learned from past experiences regarding U.S. informants. It operates a highly sophisticated, brutal, and effective intelligence network in the territory that it controls. Still, if the U.S. airstrike this past weekend did successfully wound Baghdadi, then America and its allies are still capable of finding and hunting down even the most protected and secretive of ISIS commanders.