07 Apr 16. The war in Iraq sometimes seems distant and abstract. The expansion of ISIS terrorist attacks in Europe, the Syrian refugee issue, and Russian intervention in Syria get the bulk of media and public attention. The slow Iraqi gains in Anbar, and the city-by-city fighting that never quite seems to end is only dealt with in passing. The core of the U.S. military effort against ISIS is, however, centered in Iraq. Defeating ISIS depends on U.S. success in rebuilding the Iraq Army and its ability to drive ISIS out of Iraq.
The United States has only slowly built up the kind of train and assist mission that can give Iraqi ground forces the capabilities they need. The United States did, however, begin major offensive air operations against ISIS on August 8, 2014. It flew 11,398 strike sorties by April 5, 2016, and it allocated 7,683 of those sorties to Iraq, and only 3,715 to Syria. Since that time, it has spent some $6.5 billion on these operations.
The reasons why the United States resumed a combat role in Iraq are all too clear. ISIS is one of the cruelest and most violent political movements in history. It has been a key source of international terrorism and has spread into many other countries. ISIS threatens the world’s major center of petroleum exports, and with it the stability of the global economy. It is a threat to every U.S. friend and ally in the region, and every moderate regime and state.
It is also important to remember that the fighting in Syria and Iraq cannot be separated, and the human tragedy in both countries keeps mounting. ISIS forces took Mosul, then Iraq’s second largest city, with a population approaching two and one-half million, on June 10, 2014. Since then, ISIS has driven some one million people out of the greater Mosul area and has come close to transforming one of the most populated parts of Iraq into a living hell. In fact, the majority of the people who have suffered from ISIS rule have been in Iraq. The bulk of the Syrian refugee problem, and Syrian civilian casualties, have been inflicted by the Assad regime.
The United States has chosen not to deploy major combat land units—a decision which may well be wise given the problems of deploying U.S. forces into nations with deep ethnic and sectarian tensions, Iranian and Hezbollah influence, and that must ultimately shape their own security and destiny. It is all too clear, however, that Iraq cannot succeed in defeating ISIS—or in creating some form of stability and security—without a major U.S. “train and assist” mission to aid the Iraqi army. It is also clear that there can be no security or stability in Syria until ISIS loses its power base in Iraq.
The Obama Administration recognized the need for an on the ground train and assist to a limited degree when it began to set up training centers in the rear to try to rebuild the Iraqi army. As many senior U.S. officers privately made clear at the time, however, a successful train and assist mission could be limited to secure training facilities in the rear. The Iraqi Army had never taken the lead in combat before U.S. combat forces left Iraq at the end of 2011. It suffered from near fatal levels of political interference and corruption under Iraq’s former Prime Minister Maliki, and it shattered in the face of minor ISIS attacks. It is hard to build an army. It is all too easy for self-seeking political leaders to destroy one.
The Administration, however, chose to do far too little and too late in an effort to avoid combat casualties and being seen as putting any “boots on the ground.” The end result was that the United States had to slowly and painfully increase the size and role of its train and assist mission to something closer to the levels many military advisors had recommended from the start. It has had to push trainers and advisors forward, provide fire support in some areas, reach out to Kurdish and Arab Sunni forces, and quietly increase its role in directly advising and assisting the forward deployed Iraq forces that lead Iraq’s combat effort on the ground.
This process of creeping incrementalism almost certainly delayed Iraqi progress and added to the tragedy in Iraq and Syria, but the Administration slowly seems to be waking up to the reality that some “boots on the ground” are vital—that advisors must be present to help shape Iraqi combat capability and leadership and to make sure that U.S. air support is effective. The current reports that the United States may increase the number of forward firebases in Iraq indicate that the United States may now be ready to act on the scale it should have chosen from the start. The details, however, are unclear, and too little, too late is not going to work when the fighting moves to Mosul and the real core of the ISIS position in Iraq.
Victory will also require further sacrifices by the U.S. military. There have already been minor casualties as U.S. advisors have moved forward, although the levels have so far been minimal. ISIS will lash out wherever it can against the U.S presence as it becomes more and more threatened—the United States will also face risks from other extremists.
The alternative, however, is to steadily broaden the time it will take to defeat ISIS, extend the threat of terrorism in the United States and Europe, extend the threat to our regional allies, and increase the number of refugees and innocent civilians that suffer. What would still be a very limited U.S. presence could make a vital difference in both strategic and human terms.
For additional background, see:
- The Comparative Metrics of ISIS and “Failed State Wars” in Syria and Iraq
- Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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