The U.S. Air Force’s Vital Role in Iraq and Afghanistan
Despite being at war for the past 16 years, few Americans understand the extent of the U.S. Air Force’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan. This comes as no surprise. Information is incomplete, highly technical, and frequently classified. With the reveal of President Trump’s strategy in South Asia, it is now even more important that Americans understand the Air Force’s role in the region. When the pieces of the puzzle are put together, it is clear that the Air Force’s involvement has played a significant role in promoting stability in the region. Here’s why.
The U.S. Air Force is involved in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, a global coalition effort to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The five main objectives of the operation are to provide military support to coalition partners, impede the flow of foreign fighters, stop financing and funding, address humanitarian crises in the region, and expose the group’s true nature. The U.S. Air Force contributes by providing air support and training Iraqi security forces.
The Air Force’s primary role is to destroy ISIS targets, fixed and mobile, and provide various types of reconnaissance and logistics. These targets include not only ISIS’ headquarters and safe houses, but also media centers, fighting positions, and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices factories. As of March 2017, over 180 senior ISIS officials have been eliminated in air strikes. Another significant target is ISIS-run oil fields, the group’s main source of revenue. By June 2017 ISIS’ oil refinery capability had been reduced by more than 75 percent. According to U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk, “ISIS has not taken back a single square kilometer that has been freed in coalition-enabled operations.” Coalition efforts have liberated 60% of terrain once held by ISIS in Iraq.
Overall, U.S. Air Force involvement in Iraq and Syria has increased since joining the fight in August 2014. As of August 2017, the U.S. Air Force has flown over 55,000 sorties in the past three years. So far this year, the Air Force has flown 13,109 sorties with over 8,000, or 63% of the total number of sorties, involving at least one weapon release. That is a decrease from the 21,181 sorties flown in 2016, but only 56% of those involved a weapon release. 32,801 weapons have been released in 2017 compared to the 30,743 released last year and 28,696 the year before. With three months still left in the year, it is highly likely that the number of weapons released in 2017 will continue to surpass the amount dropped in past years.
Iraqi security forces have also received aid from Washington through arms sales to update and supply its air power. In 2016 the Iraqi government purchased three F-16 fighter jet munitions packages, 146 M1A1 Main Battle tanks, four IA407 helicopters, and nine C-130 cargo aircraft. A well trained and equipped military will go a long way towards stabilizing the country and protecting the government and citizens from future threats.
U.S. efforts in Afghanistan are two-pronged: create a self-sufficient military, and perform counter-terrorism operations. The U.S. Air Force takes part in the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, and U.S. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel respectively to achieve these objectives. Operation Resolute Support aims to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces to improve their combat ability and eventually replace all foreign troops. Of the 13,479 NATO soldiers stationed in Afghanistan from 39 partner countries, 6,941 are contributed by the U.S. Similar to its efforts in Iraq, the U.S. Air Force provides air support with F-15 and F-18 fighter jets, and trains the Afghan Air Force (AAF).
U.S. Air Force activity in Afghanistan has decreased, in stark contrast to its involvement in Iraq and Syria. 2,806 sorties have been flown so far this year with 2,487 weapons released, compared to the 5,162 sorties and 1,337 weapons dropped in 2016, or the 28,760 sorties and 4,083 weapons dropped in 2012. Though the number of sorties flown with at least one weapon release increased to 761 in 2017 from 615 in 2016, numbers have not reached over 1,000 since 2014.
Operation Freedom’s Sentinel is the U.S. counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan. Where Operation Resolute Support is an advise and assist mission, Freedom’s Sentinel has approximately 2,100 special operation troops fighting alongside their Afghan counterparts. The operation targets the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS’ Afghan wing, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K). The Air Force utilizes manned and unmanned aircraft such as B-52s, F-16s, and MQ-9 Reaper drones to provide air support to land forces and hit terrorist targets.
Both operations have seen significant progress. In June 2017, the AAF independently repaired MD-530 and Mi-17 helicopters. They also performed their first airdrop of food to troops using a Cessna 208, a positive surprise since the AAF was never planned to operate in this capacity. This is significant progress towards the AAF becoming capable of air support, medical evacuation, and troop transport and eventually replacing U.S. forces. According to Secretary Mattis, the U.S. Air Force has been targeting ISIS-K since early 2016, and as of April 2017, the group’s territory has been reduced “by two-thirds in size” and its number of fighters cut in half.
President Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan commits U.S. military efforts to the country for an indeterminate amount of time, stating that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda.” The announcement is good news for General John Nicholson, Resolute Support Commander, who requested an additional 3,000 NATO troops to break the “stalemate” between Taliban and NATO forces. However, there are doubts as to how effective this plan will be since the Taliban has been gaining and solidifying its control over territory in recent months and it is unlikely that a slight troop increase will change the tide. Trump’s announcement lacked details on the number of troops to be stationed in Afghanistan, the specific form of military aid and activity, the general timeline of events, and what markers will be used to measure and determine success.
The past sixteen years of fighting have seen significant progress and operations are not likely to cease anytime soon. Iraq and Afghanistan are closer to forming and sustaining self-reliant militaries and securing their territories against extremists. The U.S. Air Force’s training and air support is necessary to ensure these countries are able to achieve these goals, and perhaps eventually sustain the kind of domestic stability required to build peaceful societies.
Rathna K. Muralidharan is a program director at the Lexington Institute focusing on global security and regional politics. You can follow her at @RathnaKM and the Lexington Institute @LextNextDC.