Airstrikes Counterproductive in Fight Against ISIS

Oluwa Jones '15 Assistant Opinions Editor 

The brutal terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is responsible for slaughtering Shi’a civilians, raping and enslaving women, using children as suicide bombers and beheading prisoners. The beheading of two Japanese prisoners and the accidental death of an American hostage by Jordanian air strikes, further demonstrates the need to end this conflict. Critics of the American-led coalition to counter ISIS insist that changing the political culture in Iraq would be more effective if our allies focused on strengthening state institutions, rather than pursuing air strike campaigns. Non-governmental human rights groups have long been concerned with the importance of rule-following and prosecution in the course of settling wars.

Obama’s current strategy involves the use of airstrikes aimed at ISIS strongholds through Syria and Iraq. According to NPR, Obama will soon seek congressional authorization to use military force in Iraq. As of now, the President has been acting under September 11-era authorizations. Obama is the fourth consecutive president to fight a war in Iraq. Although one can agree that the ultimate goal is to prevent any further ISIS atrocities, the way to do this is to institutionalize justice and order in Iraq.

Many trace the rise of ISIS to the poor leadership of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-maliki, who intentionally ruined any chance of a peaceful political order in Iraq by denying political rights to the nation’s Sunni population. Many depictions of al-Maliki highlight his paranoia and insecurity. Al-maliki treated every Sunni citizen as if they were Ba’athists or terrorists. Maliki’s violent tactics created many of the enemies he sought to avoid. In the article “ISIS: A New Adversary In An Endless War,” Rachelle Marshall notes that under al-Maliki, “Sunnis were denied government benefits, and thousands were arrested and held without charges.” Additionally, the current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has yet to release all of Maliki’s prisoners. Protecting rights for the accused in Iraq and creating institutions that could hold the leaders accountable would have long-term positive effects on the political culture of Iraq.

So long as the Sunni population feels antagonized, ISIS will be able to find fighters to join their efforts. Due to the repression under Maliki and the treatment during the war, ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now commands a full-blown army that controls thousands of miles of land in Iraq and Syria. Targeted drone strikes, or apolitical civilian killings, are less effective in establishing legal norms and lasting peace than indicting the perpetrators of terror and holding trials, even though these individuals are hard to capture and arrest. Nations facing wide-ranging violence caused by political instability would be helped by the creation of institutions that could establish accountability.

Air strikes may be a tool in this process, but will fail to establish a just and stable political order in Iraq. As noted by the Cost of War Project, civilians suffer the most during air strike campaigns. In the Iraq War, 90 percent of all casualties were civilians, as opposed to World War I where civilian deaths accounted for 10 percent of deaths. Survivors of these air campaigns often need long-term medical care and expensive prostheses, not to mention the mental and economic suffering involved with losing family members, which may require family members to take care of a disabled or orphaned relative and pay for funeral expenses (though these campaigns often destroy entire families). U.S. media rarely report on this, but it’s not uncommon for the military to miss its target and hit populated areas, killing hundreds of entire families while wounding thousands of others. Refugees from these conflicts lose everything, including access to jobs, a stable supply of food and water. Those who do survive become more susceptible to terrorist rhetoric.

Attempting to bring peace to Iraq in the absence of institutions that protect rights will only bring with it more terrorism and anti-Western sentiment. Keeping boots on the ground, something Obama has avoided, would not solve Iraq’s internal problems either. An intensive aid program, aimed at providing job opportunities and medical aid for the injured and the creation of political institutions that could represent all factions of the Iraqi population would go far. Not only would this effort save both lives and financial resources, it would also be more effective than bombing and lead to less anti-U.S. sentiment which causes some of the global terrorism we see today.