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Has The US Lost Its Nerve? McSally Argues Extreme Caution Over Civilian Casualties Is Hurting War Against ISIS

At a hearing Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Rep. Martha McSally argued commanders are hampering strikes against the Islamic State because of excessive caution over civilian casualties.

McSally, a former Air Force pilot with plenty of A-10 flight experience, said the approval process for airstrikes is so arduous and time-consuming that pilots often end up returning to base because of low fuel, Air Force Times reports.

“If we’re trying to avoid one civilian casualty in not hitting a legitimate target, we’re allowing the Islamic State to continue to commit atrocities and murder against the people on the ground,” McSally said.

“We certainly don’t target civilians. But we use military force in order to achieve a military objective and minimize civilian casualties. If we are deciding not to hit a legitimate target because there may be a civilian casualty, now we’ve turned that on its head,” she added.

As of late May, pilots have conducted a total of 4,200 strikes, but some say the number of bombs dropped is irrelevant if the strikes don’t achieve crucial objectives.

“We have not taken the fight to these guys,” an A-10 pilot told The New York Times. “We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely.”

U.S. military officials have already admitted to extreme caution. Analysts have identified at least seven buildings in Raqqa which house key ISIS command centers. U.S. aircraft possess incredibly precise targeting capabilities, but there still is a chance of civilian casualties. For officials, casualties are unacceptable, since they threaten the legitimacy of the campaign and may bolster sympathy for ISIS, specifically from Sunnis.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno pointed out last week that the Iraq army needs buy-in from Sunnis, since without cohesion among the different ethnic and religious groups in the region, driving out ISIS—and other similar organizations—is impossible in the long-run. Even if the U.S. were to ship out 150,000 troops, mop the floor with ISIS and then leave, a security vacuum would simply prompt the reemergence of another terrorist group with state-like ambitions, Odierno argued.

The U.S. has repeatedly emphasized that its end goal is to hand off governance and other military functions to authorities in Iraq, preferring to play a support role at most. This is why avoiding civilian casualties is such a priority, leading to anger and frustration from Iraqi officers complaining about the United States’ reticence for serious airstrikes.

“The international alliance is not providing enough support compared with ISIS’ capabilities on the ground in Anbar,” Maj. Muhammed al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi officer in Anbar Province, told The New York Times. “The US airstrikes in Anbar didn’t enable our security forces to resist and confront the ISIS attacks. We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiency of the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey was present to stake the exact opposite position but refused to publicly give McSally the number of aircraft forced to return to base while waiting for airstrike approval. Dempsey said that he’d only provide the numbers in a private setting for fear of giving away tactical information to ISIS.

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