© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Critics Say 'Inherent Resolve' Mission Against ISIS Is Underwhelming


The current U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria now has an official name - Operation Inherent Resolve - and it took two months for the Pentagon to come up with the label. It sounds less flashy than Desert Shield or Desert Storm, earlier military operations in the region. Operation Inherent Resolve is also much less intense than those campaigns. And that, says NPR's David Welna, is drawing some criticism.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The name Operation Inherent Resolve was actually rejected a few weeks ago by the Pentagon as being too bland. There's been a lot of criticism too of the air campaign itself. Much of it has been coming from people with close military ties. They argue that the 10-week-old aerial bombing campaign in Iraq has been underwhelming. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pushed back hard today against those critics.


JOHN KIRBY: The strategy's still sound, but you don't judge the success of a strategy based on a day, or a week, or even several weeks. We believe and we've said it before that we're in this - we all need to be in this - for a matter of years. And for us, after just a couple of months going at it - we've only been doing airstrikes since August 8th.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I don't think it's been an exercise in futility, but it has not been an exercise at an intensity that really matters.

WELNA: That's Anthony Cordesman. Some years ago, he advised the Pentagon on Iraq strategy. He's now at a bipartisan policy think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman says when compared to earlier U.S. air campaigns in Iraq, this one is so puny it amounts to, in his words, little more than military tokenism.

CORDESMAN: I think whenever you see - in public affairs coming out of the Pentagon - little more than daily reports of the numbers of strikes and then the sort of arbitrary accounts of how many trucks or vehicles we killed in a given day, you have a pretty good indication that you haven't had much strategic effect on either tooth or tail.

WELNA: Tooth, in military parlance, is the fighters on the battlefront, which in this case is Iraq and tail is their supply chain, which is mainly in Syria. Intensifying U.S. airstrikes in both countries, Cordesman says, would not only significantly weaken those fighters, it would also for the Obama administration be a smart move, politically.

CORDESMAN: It would certainly defuse what is often the charge that we have been - too weak, too slow, too little, again and again over the last few years in making military operations effective and successful.

STEVEN SIMON: You know, I'm not sure I agree with that. I think the administration is pretty highly incentivized.

WELNA: That's Steven Simon. Until two years ago he was a top White House adviser on the Middle East. Simon says the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have been limited by the Islamic State's relatively small, hard to hit operations.

SIMON: Even by plinking away at ISIS - which is pretty much all you can do at this point - the target environment is not, as the military would say, very lucrative. So you shoot at what you can shoot at.

WELNA: What's more, there's the constant danger of U.S. airstrikes inadvertently killing civilians in Iraq and making it that much harder to win support and possible collaboration in the mostly Sunni territories occupied by Islamic State fighters. Simon adds that some in the administration believe that withholding airstrikes helps pressure authorities in Baghdad to shape up their own military.

SIMON: I don't think that the White House actually wants to do everything for Baghdad. They want to leave something for Baghdad to do and give them an incentive to do it.

WELNA: Both Simon and Cordesman agree that despite recent advances by Islamic State fighters, the Shiite-dominated capital of Baghdad is unlikely to fall under their control.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.