Mehdi Army_Iraq_June16
Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a military-style training in the holy city of Najaf on June 16, 2014. Reuters/Ahmad Mousa

As the Obama administration debates how to resolve the crisis in Iraq, one military option under close consideration is U.S. air strikes. After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a radical Sunni organization, captured the city of Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki requested American assistance in the form of air strikes -- a request that Obama has thus far resisted.

For the U.S., air strikes have a distinct appeal. Powered by drone technology, they would enable the Obama administration to attack ISIS fighters without requiring a sustained ground invasion, an option that President Obama has consistently ruled out. And, as a corollary, air strikes would minimize the risk of U.S. casualties -- a key consideration given the American public's war fatigue -- while still achieving American objectives in Iraq.

But in the case of Iraq, air strikes present logistical problems. ISIS, despite being a disciplined, hierarchical force, does not resemble a conventional army. ISIS fighters do not wear uniforms or advance in traditional columns. This makes distinguishing between them and their opponents -- such as Shia militias -- extremely difficult.

“You’d see some guys driving around in a Humvee carrying AK-47s, or USM4s, and you don’t know whether they’re ISIS or guys going to fight ISIS. Who do you bomb?” said Austin Long, a Middle East expert at Columbia University. “It’s a recipe for things going poorly.”

Air strikes also present problems in urban areas, where an errant strike runs the risk of inflicting collateral damage.

Even in areas where the U.S. military has comparatively good intelligence -- such as Afghanistan -- the risk of mistakes is great: On June 9, a coalition jet called in to ward off a Taliban attack killed five American service members in southern Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has recently committed other resources to Iraq. On Tuesday, Obama announced that 275 U.S. special forces would travel to Baghdad to protect the U.S. Embassy and assist evacuating employees. Obama is also reportedly considering sending additional service members to train Iraqi forces.

The administration has not ruled out airstrikes in the future, should U.S. intelligence improve. But the lack of American soldiers operating in Iraq and interacting with Sunni locals presents a challenge in gathering intelligence. Sunni residents in Mosul reported last week that they welcomed ISIS fighters and feared a retaliatory campaign by the Baghdad government, and as a result may be less willing to cooperate with anti-ISIS forces.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has encouraged the Maliki government to seek political reconciliation with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish populations. But according to the New York Times, the prime minister has instead devoted his energies to defending Shia populations in the country.