The Pentagon obviously has convinced the White House that they can improve U.S. security effectively without “boots on the ground”; if the President will permit them to use all the remarkable technology that they have at their disposal. (Much of this is the same technology which Israel, among others, has used with impressive expertise and for whose use the U.S. and the West frequently have been highly critical.)
Using F-15E fighter jets last week sliced into Libya and killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one the principle Algerian terrorist leaders affiliated with an al-Qaeda radical faction who was responsible for numerous attacks against civilian targets which killed, among others, three Americans at a gas plant in Algeria in 2013. Similarly, last week the U.S. Air Force using military drones killed terrorist leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), who had orchestrated repeated plots against U.S. targets. While reports suggest that both specific targets were killed, there was very limited discussion by anyone—so far—about collateral damage or civilian casualties.
Using these sophisticated and modern warfare techniques may now be moved more actively into the more violent arena of the Syria-Iraq versus ISIS conflict; assuming that the U.S. can obtain accurate human intelligence. Gaining such information will be considerably more challenging; targets may well be far more elusive; and sites will be much closer to potential civilian populations. In fact for the President it is here that the true test for him, personally, and his closest advisers will come.
Aside from the fact that the elevated U.S. presence in the region since June 2014 has been less than a smashing success, moving to a more sophisticated– less human form –of confrontation presents the White House with two immediate tasks; one strategic and one ideological. These are both challenges which have confounded the U.S. in the Middle East for decades.
The U.S. has suffered from a major lack of reliable human intelligence in the region. Throughout the Arab world, unlike Israel, the U.S. has not always found the most accurate human intelligence sources to complement its highly sophisticated electronic intelligence. As a result, conducting attacks against ISIS, unlike in Libya or Yemen, may be far more difficult to orchestrate and will undoubtedly cover a much wider geographic area.
Second, attacking targets controlled by ISIS will most likely produce significant civilian casualties. The Obama Administration needs to accept this fact before it authorizes the military to proceed with such initiatives. Furthermore, the President, who has consistently been risk averse and who wants to affirm U.S. interests with minimal civilian fall out, will need to accept the fact that this is unlikely to be the case with targeted aerial attacks to say nothing of drone shootings.