Mark Clodfelter, a professor of military strategy at the National War College in Washington, is the author of "The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam" and "Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945."
Air power can do a lot — provided the circumstances are right. In Iraq, some of the conditions have been present that has allowed air power to achieve a modicum of success.
First, the environment suited the use of air power, both in its lethal and nonlethal applications. The remote, desert conditions enabled aircrews and intelligence specialists to identify and attack ISIS combat units, as well as to specify the location of the Yazidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar so that airdrops could provide vital supplies.
Second, when the initial airstrikes began, ISIS waged a relatively fast-paced, conventional war of movement. The targets attacked were away from populated areas, minimizing the possibility of civilian losses. Those attacks helped blunt the ISIS move toward Erbil. It now appears that ISIS units have begun deploying in civilian areas to preclude further bombing.
Doubtless American political and military leaders anticipated such a shift, which highlights the third, and most important, condition determining air power effectiveness: What is its true purpose? The president initially announced that he used air power to protect American military advisers and diplomats threatened by the ISIS advance, and to prevent a humanitarian disaster on Mount Sinjar. Yet soon afterward he provided an additional rationale: To give the Iraqis space to develop a unified government capable of successfully combating ISIS.
The validity of the assumption that an inclusive Iraqi government comprised Sunni, Kurd and Shiite representation will instill in the Iraqi populace “some sense that they’re fighting for something,” in the president’s words, and spark competence on the battlefield, remains to be seen. Additionally, ISIS is unlikely to keep fighting in a way that makes them vulnerable to bombing — they have demonstrated a ruthlessness that makes human shields a natural move for further military action, plus they are adept at spinning any air attack, whether or not it causes collateral damage, into a bombing “mistake” viewed on Facebook and Twitter as well as news media.
Air power can help improve a situation if the conditions are right, but it cannot independently achieve political objectives. Asking any military instrument of power to do so is asking too much.