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Judging Effectiveness Of Airstrikes Against ISIS Remains Challenging


The U.S. launched more airstrikes inside Syria and Iraq today. That brings the total to more than 400 airstrikes against the group that calls itself the Islamic State. It's easier to count the number of strikes than to determine whether they're having much of an effect. President Obama is trying to find out whether his strategy is working, and he met today with top advisers as well as the military leaders of 21 nations.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us for the latest on the air campaign. Welcome, Tom.


CORNISH: All right, so that 400 figure - put it in context for us.

BOWMAN: Well, it may sound like a lot, but you need some perspective. Now, those 400 or more strikes have taken place since August, averaging maybe six to a dozen or so on the days where there are airstrikes.

Now, during the Operation Desert Storm in Iraq back in 1991, the U.S. was launching 650 airstrikes every day. Now, obviously we're talking about different kinds of enemies here. You're comparing terrorist fighters with mostly assault rifles to Saddam Hussein's large, mechanized army, but this gets to the main criticism here - that this is not really an air campaign. It's just strikes here and there. Some call it whack-a-mole.

Now, remember, during the 2003 Iraq invasion, people talked about an air campaign that was nicknamed shock and awe. Some air advocates are calling this effort shock and yawn.

CORNISH: Yikes, but should be also interpret that to mean that the airstrikes aren't having much of an effect?

BOWMAN: Well, there are some places where the airstrikes did have an effect. Islamic State fighters were pushed back at the Mosul dam in northern Iraq. Another place was Sinjar mountain in Iraq. This was an air campaign that started in August. The bombings helped the Yazidi religious sect reach safety, and thousands of them had been trapped on that mountain top.

And the president talked about both these successes today, but the problem is the Islamic State fighters are still on the move both in Syria and in Iraq - just west of Baghdad in Iraq. And the president acknowledged this. And in some case, the Islamic State fighters, despite all the bombing, are still grabbing territory.

CORNISH: So what are military officials saying here about why the so-called Islamic State or ISIS fighters are able to keep taking more territory and whether more airstrikes would be needed to stop them?

BOWMAN: Well, some people I talk with - former officials say you need a lot more airstrikes. And there's a - the problem is there's a great deal of concern about civilian casualties, so the U.S. military is being extra careful. They're holding back on certain targets, and there's a reason for that. Some of these Islamic State fighters are moving into the cities - into schools and mosques...

CORNISH: So blending into the communities

BOWMAN: Exactly - not out in the open so they're more difficult to strike. And some officers complain there's a complicated process to get a target approved. It's very bureaucratic they say. But these officials also say listen, there are many targets we could hit that are far from civilian areas, like a convoy, for example, that just aren't being hit. And they say if you really want to have an effect, you have to do a lot more bombing of these Islamic State targets.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, the White House has always said that forces on the ground are going to have to take the lead here, but when airstrikes do take place, are there forces on the ground fighting ISIS that can take advantage of the strikes?

BOWMAN: The forces on the ground simply just aren't strong enough. Just west of Baghdad, the Iraqi military retreated in the last couple of days, and Islamic State fighters were able to take over a military base, and they're threatening at least one other base. I was talking with a retired general who got an e-mail from a tribal leader in this area, and the message was, come quick or it's too late.

Now, to the north of Baghdad, the U.S. military had to drop food and water and also 16,000 pounds of ammunition. So these forces just aren't ready, and the same is true in Syria as well. It's going to take a lot more time.

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.