Kurdish Peshmerga fighters along with Iraqi special forces have retaken the Mosul dam from ISIS, who captured it earlier in the month. However, reports filed by journalists who visited the aftermath of the battle suggest that the Kurds and Iraqis were not alone:
Several compounds bore the marks of airstrikes, their walls collapsed and blackened. A large armored personnel carrier sat belly up, its body little more than strands of metal connected to a frame. The force of the blasts tore trees in two, spreading a blanket of branches and needles over a sloping road leading into the community.
The airstrikes were directed with what seemed a high degree of accuracy. Single homes were leveled, while neighboring ones stood in good order, exhibiting only the scars of shrapnel.
This level of coordination and accuracy can be achieved only with US personnel operating on the ground with their Iraqi counterparts, directing close air support against ISIS vehicles and strongpoints. This should not be a surprise; the US military and intelligence community has decades of experience in Iraq and has developed a large number of experienced cadres capable of close liaison with Iraqi personnel.
Furthermore, the “Afghan model” – supporting indigenous forces with airpower coordinated by small numbers of embedded special operations personnel – offers a great deal of potential for rolling back ISIS: Iraq is much closer to US air power, many of the networks and contacts established by the US during the war are still intact, infrastructure is still in place, local forces are much more sophisticated than the Northern Alliance was, and all the regional governments would support the campaign. Unlike the urban Iraqi insurgents that US forces battled for almost a decade, ISIS has assembled into battalion-sized formations that are vulnerable to annihilation from the air.
Overall, this strategy strikes a balance between the need to confront ISIS on one hand, and President Obama’s disinclination to become deeply involved in a Third Iraq War on the other. I expect to air strikes continue for several weeks, and President Obama to stretch his self-imposed mandate in creative ways.