The United States military has no interest in withdrawing from international laws and norms to “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State—along with thousands of civilians—off the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon’s top commander in the U.S.-led coalition said Monday.
A year and a half of air sorties have dropped more than 10,000 U.S. bombs over Islamic State fighters. The result has been, at its best, a 40 percent reduction in the territory held by the group in the two countries, with minimal collateral damage and cost to U.S. life, according to the Obama administration. At its worst, to hear Republican 2016 contenders tell it, it’s a reflection of American weakness and military mismanagement that can be traced directly to the White House.
But the Pentagon is “bound by the Laws of Armed Conflict,” said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who commands the U.S.-led effort in Iraq and Syria, in a briefing from Iraq. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t only matter whether or not you win, it matters how you win… Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”
U.S. officials have described the current conflict as “the most precise air campaign I think in the history of air campaigns, in the history of warfare, frankly.”
And “indiscriminate bombing,” MacFarland said Monday, “where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has been the most vocal advocate of “carpet-bombing” ISIS until the “sand glows.” But when confronted during Thursday’s debate about discrepancies in his voting record that don’t square with his campaign’s hawkish words, Cruz dodged and doubled-down.
I will apologize to nobody for the vigorousness with which I will fight terrorism, go after ISIS, hunt them down wherever they are, and utterly and completely destroy ISIS… You know, you claim it is tough talk to discuss carpet bombing. It is not tough talk. It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we’ve seen from Barack Obama. Barack Obama right now, number one, over seven years, has dramatically degraded our military. You know, just two weeks ago was the 25th anniversary of the first Persian Gulf war. When that war began, we had 8,000 planes. Today, we have about 4,000. When that war began, we had 529 ships. Today, we have 272. You want to know what carpet bombing is? It’s what we did in the first Persian Gulf war; 1,100 air attacks a day, saturation bombing that utterly destroyed the enemy. Right now, Barack Obama is launching between 15 and 30 air attacks a day… We need to rebuild the military to defeat the enemy. And we need to be focused and lift the rules of engagement so we’re not sending our fighting men and women into combat with their arms tied behind their backs.
In military legal circles, “carpet-bombing” is an informal term that refers to dropping munitions on a city or location without any regard for who is killed. The term is believed to have been first applied to bombing campaigns over Normandy, Dresden and Tokyo. It’s a tactic that violates the Geneva Convention, forged after World War II, but was never actually codified until 1977.
Since the start of the year, U.S. Central Command has released the results of several investigations into allegations of civilian casualties from its airstrikes against ISIS. To date, the U.S. military has admitted to killing more than two-dozen Iraqis and Syrians, and more allegations are still being investigated.
For its part, new accusations were leveled against Russia on Saturday. The Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights accused Moscow of killing some 1,400 civilians in Syria since Russia first built up its air base in Latakia last September. On Monday, Russia released a tally of its air activity in just the last week alone, making no distinction between ISIS fighters and the rebels they are widely understood to be targeting with the majority of Moscow’s strikes.
“The Russians and I don’t talk about very much,” said MacFarland, “other than how to kind of stay out of each other’s way for the most part.”
The carpet-bomb line began seizing headlines from the presidential campaign trail in December, following the Paris attacks and amid increasing public restlessness for sending additional ground troops to the fight. But coalition leaders have been more optimistic since the fall of Ramadi in late December. And their strategy remains one of encircling and, over time, shrinking ISIS-held territory while the two big objectives—Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria—are still many months away, MacFarland said.
The plan still hinges on U.S. troops in limited advisory roles, with local partner forces like Arabs and Kurds continuing to shoulder the fight to seize and hold territory. In Syria, for example, the Pentagon has formed partnerships with “multiple groups” that have led to gains in the north and the east, “holding the enemy back along so-called Marah Line in northwest Syria,” said MarFarland. Another group, under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, secured Tishreen Dam on Euphrates, not far from Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de-facto headquarters.
But the beginning of the end of the war against ISIS is the fall of Raqqa, MacFarland said. “We have to get Raqqa out of the hands of ISIL. You just can’t leave it there.” Syria is even more complicated than Iraq, where the U.S. has an agreement with Baghdad. And it’s Baghdad, not the Pentagon technically, that ultimately decides when any offensive on Mosul will begin and what U.S. weapons they request for the fight—a battle estimated to require at least 10 Iraqi brigades of between 20,000 to 30,000 troops.
“We can’t inflict help on somebody,” MacFarland said. “They have to ask for it. They have to want it.”