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The Designs Behind Airstrikes — And The Damage They've Dealt


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama today confirmed that with U.S. help, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have recaptured the Mosul dam in northern Iraq from Islamic insurgents. This is the dam that the president called a critical infrastructure site when he wrote to Congress to explain why he'd authorized American airstrikes in Iraq. And today, U.S. forces carried out more airstrikes - 15 near the Mosul dam, according to the Pentagon.

SIEGEL: How closely are the current U.S. airstrikes coordinated with Kurdish or Iraqi forces on the ground? Is there now a coordinated land and air campaign against the so-called Islamic State? Well, we're going to talk now with Michael Barbero. He's a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. And nowadays he's consulting with Middle Eastern energy concerns, including some in Iraqi Kurdistan. But a few years ago, he was deputy commander in Iraq. And during the surge of U.S. forces there in 2007 and 2008, he oversaw targeting for airstrikes. Gen. Barbero, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL BARBERO: Robert, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: What would you assume to be the level of coordination these days between Kurdish forces on the ground and U.S. forces in the air?

BARBERO: Well, it's extensive. We have a joint operation center in Erbil. And any time you conduct airstrikes, you want to have as close as coordination as possible - seamless coordination with the forces on the ground to prevent - limit collateral damage and to prevent fratricide, obviously.

SIEGEL: So before strikes are ordered, you'd be hearing from the Peshmerga - what's going on on the ground and who's where?

BARBERO: Right. And you'd probably be taking some of the targets and asking the Peshmerga - I want to check one more time that you have no Peshmerga forces in this area. And they would clear it. It'd be a pretty rapid process. And then those targets would be ready to be hit.

SIEGEL: In addition to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militiamen on the ground, should we realistically assume that there's some kind of U.S. Special Forces - not boots on the ground, but sneakers on the ground perhaps in there - helping to direct strikes.

BARBERO: Well, there's a couple ways to direct strikes. The first and most preferred method, Robert, is to have U.S. folks on the ground. The other way to do is it to train Peshmerga forces - the indigenous forces - to do it. That's probably doubtful. And then the third way - which I think you can do it if there's no Peshmerga forces in the area, it's out in the open, not near villages - is just use your surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to fly over, identify targets, rapidly clear them and then hit them.

SIEGEL: Eye in the sky.

BARBERO: Eye in the sky.

SIEGEL: But is it naive to think that there aren't any Americans somewhere in the action close to the Peshmerga communicating back to Erbil what the U.S. should do.

BARBERO: I would not be surprised if there were Americans close to the action on the ground with the Peshmerga. But I have no knowledge of the. But I wouldn't be surprised.

SIEGEL: If indeed the Peshmerga have pushed the Islamic State forces out of the dam - as they claim - and out of that area, it's a remarkable turnaround after these incredibly rapid advances that the jihadists made just a few weeks ago. How vital to that turnaround is U.S. air power?

BARBERO: Well, it's critical to this operation. From talking to Peshmerga forces, the air strikes by the U.S. forces eliminated and dispersed the ISIS forces from the dam. And right now, the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces are moving from two different directions - are going to the painstaking meter-by-meter clearance of extensive IEDs, booby-traps in the vicinity of the dam. And so they're actually clearing belts of these IEDs and booby-traps to get onto the dam and then inspect it a little closer.

SIEGEL: It's a given nowadays that the U.S. does not want to send troops in any large numbers to fight either in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else in the region. Is this level of air power that's now being unleashed - is it comparable to what we were doing when you were there? That is, have we gone to a very active air role in Iraq over these past couple of weeks?

BARBERO: No, Robert, it is not. It is fairly restricted to, quote unquote, "humanitarian targets and also to protect our people in Iraq and Baghdad and Erbil." We had free reign when I was there during the surge. But you know ISIS, they're smart. And they're going to learn that - what these restrictions are and adjust their tactics to protect themselves from these limited airstrikes.

SIEGEL: Are we at a stage now where a $20,000 vehicle on the ground is a worthy target for a missile that costs, you know, half a million dollars?

BARBERO: Well, it appears that way. But, you know, the truth of the matter is we'll run out of Hellfire missiles and bombs before they run out of guys in the back of pickup trucks. You cannot airstrike your way out of this.

SIEGEL: Gen. Barbero, thanks a lot for talking with us.

BARBERO: Robert, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero talking with us about the current fighting in Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.