WASHINGTON — The Defense Department has enough forces in the Persian Gulf to conduct airstrikes that would probably prevent Sunni insurgents from marching into Baghdad, but other missions would be far more complex and risk drawing the United States back into an Iraqi civil war, according to retired military commanders.
The Pentagon announced that the USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport dock ship, had arrived in the gulf Monday to join an aircraft carrier, a destroyer and a guided-missile cruiser. Together, the warships carry a large number of fighter jets and search-and-rescue aircraft, along with Tomahawk cruise missiles and other ordnance, that would give President Barack Obama an assortment of tactical options, should he decide to take military action in Iraq.
“Militarily, we can do just about anything we want,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who helped lead previous air campaigns over Iraq and Afghanistan. “The question is, to what end?”
The Pentagon’s ability to deploy drones to conduct surveillance and carry out airstrikes — a move endorsed by many in Congress — may be limited. The U.S. military has Predator and Reaper drones at several bases in the region but would have to get permission from reluctant host countries to use them in Iraq.
Targeting fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, would not be difficult if they continue to advance toward Baghdad along highways and other visible routes, the former military commanders said. But airstrikes would become far more complicated if the insurgents stay within the cities they have taken control of in recent weeks, raising the likelihood of civilian casualties.
Mr. Obama on Friday ruled out sending ground forces “back into combat in Iraq.” That decision means there may not be large numbers of U.S. personnel in the country to help gather intelligence and identify targets for airstrikes.
On Monday, U.S. officials said the White House was considering sending as many as 100 Special Operations troops to Iraq in a training and advisory role. Although the White House said those forces would not be directly involved in combat, it was unclear whether they could be used to select targets or call in airstrikes.
Without forces on the ground to verify that U.S. airstrikes had hit legitimate military targets, the United States would become more vulnerable to enemy propaganda about mass civilian casualties, said Gary Roughead, a retired four-star admiral and chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011. “The other side gets to generate the narrative, whether it’s fact or fiction,” he said. “Not having the ability to coordinate from the ground makes it very hard.”
For targets in populated areas, the United States would have to rely to a large extent on intelligence provided by the Iraqi military. Although the U.S. military could also turn to satellite imagery and airborne surveillance, having troops on the ground to coordinate with Iraqi forces would greatly lessen the odds of a mistake, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen.James Poss, who helped oversee the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001.afghanistan - United States - North America - Asia - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Europe - Barack Obama - Western Europe - District of Columbia - Central Asia - U.S. Department of Defense - Iraq - Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Nouri al-Maliki - Turkey - Iraq government - Baghdad - Persian Gulf - Iraqi armed forces - John Kirby