The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s Iraq airstrikes could actually help the Islamic State, not weaken it

Whatever else we’ve learned from more than 10 years of U.S. intervention in Iraq, it should be eminently clear that we can’t defeat Islamist extremists with airstrikes.

Every bomb recruits more supporters. As the Pentagon-linked Rand Corp. noted last year, the 2003 American invasion of Iraq “provided al Qaeda with a new front, a new recruiting poster, and a new destination for global jihadists.” The Chatham House research organization in London reported that the war “gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising.”

Today’s Islamic State fighters will likely see the same boost in morale and enrollment, even if some military targets are knocked out. Airstrikes won’t stop the Islamic State from advancing in Iraq and Syria, even if the U.S. manages to protect people in the Kurdish area.

That’s not to say we should do nothing.

The need for humanitarian assistance for Iraq’s beleaguered Yazidi community is urgent. But the United Nations had already offered to provide the necessary technical support for a truly humanitarian airlift.  When Iraqi President al-Maliki rejected the U.N. for no justifiable reason, President Obama should have pushed him to reconsider.

Instead, he immediately offered the U.S. Air Force. This will link any humanitarian efforts to military action, making it difficult for the U.S. to secure local and regional allies.

For most Iraqis, the U.S. is still known for sanctioning, invading and occupying Iraq. Across the region, returning to direct U.S. military involvement in Iraq, against the Islamic State or not, will be understood as part of the effort to shore up the discredited Maliki. Long supported by the U.S. despite his corruption and exclusion and repression of Sunnis, Maliki is widely blamed for the recent escalation of sectarianism originally imposed by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.  So when the U.S. military returns to Iraq, in support of not only the Kurdish troops directly opposing the Islamic State but more importantly on the side of the hated Maliki government in Baghdad, it once again places the U.S. against what many Iraqis are hoping for – an end to sectarian rule.

We should also not pretend that the U.S. is so great at mixing humanitarian airlifts and military airstrikes. When, in November 2001, the U.S. bombed Afghanistan, desperate Afghans fled to the mountains to escape. They faced the cold with nothing, and the U.S. insisted on responding to their needs with an air drop — against the advice of experienced humanitarian organizations advocating old-fashioned, if less telegenic, truck and donkey convoys.

It was a disaster. The yellow-plastic-wrapped food packets the Pentagon dropped were indistinguishable from the yellow-wrapped cluster bombs they were dropping nearby. Children, rushing to grab what appeared to be food, were killed. At the Pentagon, Gen. Richard Myers said the U.S. had no intention of stopping the use of cluster bombs, and that changing their color “obviously will take some time, because there are many in the pipeline.”

Dropping food and water isn’t always the same as dropping bombs – but when it’s the U.S. Air Force, with cargo planes full of food and water accompanied by fighter jets and bombers, it’s way too easy for one to segue right into the other.

President Obama himself called Iraq a “dumb war.” As he’s said, there is no U.S. military solution in Iraq.  So why is he authorizing U.S. actions that set us up to fail?