21 May 15. On Wednesday, a State Department official did something that the U.S. government has not done in years. They provided a meaningful and in-depth explanation of the course of the fighting in Ramadi. They also provided a realistic assessment of the problems the United States faced, the uncertainties in its plans for reacting, the fact it might take years to succeed, and the risks the United States now faced.
It makes a particularly striking contrast to the constant stream of vacuous spin the Department of Defense has issued on the war against ISIS – as well as Afghanistan and Yemen and had previously issued in reaction to the defeat in Ramadi Briefings like “Dempsey: Iraqi Forces Not Driven From Ramadi, They Drove Out of Ramadi” and “Centcom Officials ‘Confident’ Iraqi Security Forces Will Recover Ramadi.”
Or, the monumental lack of content and integrity in a much broader report by the new Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations called “Operation Inherent Resolve” – assigned to their disgrace by the Inspector Generals of State, DOD, and USAID.
The Need for Transparency, Integrity, and Content
The State Department background briefing is well worth reading in full, along with the other reports listed above that simply dodge and spin. It makes a sharp and welcome contrast at a time virtually every indicator shows that the number of terrorist movements and attacks is rising on a global basis; and that we are involved in “failed state wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen that we are not winning and where our current efforts seem too weak, and uncoordinated with our allies and partners to be effective.
At the same time, it is a clear demonstration of the fact the United States cannot shape an effective military effort without providing the level of transparency, integrity, and content that allows informed debate over what we are doing, shows we have chosen effective options and have a workable strategy, justifies the risk to those we send into the theater of conflict, and proves our efforts deserve the support of the American people and the Congress.
The Obama administration has talked about transparency since the beginning of its first term, but the reality has so far been to steadily cut the content and objectivity of its reports when things go wrong. It has been to confuse policy with implementation and shaping the realities on the ground. It has been to spin events, downplay risk and problems to the point of lying by omission, and fail to report on the full nature and effectiveness of its actions. Far too much of what has been said in recent years has made the “Vietnam follies” look like models of integrity and depth.
It is a symbol of the fact that we need regular, honest, and comprehensive Obama administration reporting on the course of our wars. It shows we need congressional legislative requirements that force that reporting to occur, and hearings and congressional reviews that do more than focus on five minute media visibility exercises for committee members. It shows far more congressional action is needed than vague calls for “strategy,” or even vaguer partisan attacks that are designed to target the coming election or promote a particular Republican presidential candidacy.
The risks of failure and making inadequate efforts in all of our current military interventions – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – are too great. There need to be “whole of government” reports that fully assess both what is happening in each war – and the adequacy of our current efforts and future plans. These reports need to have real content and a full range of metrics on at least a quarterly level. They should be subject to outside expert review and meaningful congressional hearings.
They also need to have the kind of objective in-house review and criticism that can only come from groups like the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The in-house efforts of the new Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations called “Operation Inherent Resolve” – and the Inspector Generals of State, DOD, and USAID – have already proved to be an ineffective disgrace.
The Need for a Broader Strategy, Focus on Iraqi Unity, and Tying Action in Iraq to Action in Syria
At the same time, the United States has reached a point in the war against ISIL – and the struggle to bring some kind of stability to Iraq and Syria – where more action is needed than simply addressing one defeat with a new degree of honesty and depth. The State Department briefing should be read with several broader issues in mind.
We are not simply fighting ISIL. We are dealing with a range of extremist movements and an ideological struggle for the future of Islam. Degrading ISIL will not be enough if the Al Nusra Front or other extremist movements come to dominate much or all of Syria on a lasting basis, if Iraq effectively splits into a hostile and unstable Sunni Arab minority region, a Shiite dominated east, and a Kurdish dominated Northwest.
At a minimum, no kind of lasting “victory” in the form of some reasonable degree of stability and security can occur in Iraq – or any of our other wars – without effective national unity. We are not just fighting ISIL or a broader range of extremist and terrorist movements. We are engaged in a conflict where no favorable outcome is possible without Iraqi success in what has become armed nation building. The usual counter insurgency (COIN) mantra of “win, hold, and build” will be meaningless unless the Iraqi central government succeeds in reaching out to Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) can be better integrated into some form of federalism.
If we do not fully link our progress in helping Iraq go from failed state to something approaching a real nation, our strategy will be too limited to succeed. We will at best be trapped into trying to contain the struggles and violence of its parts, and see them driven towards Sunni Islamic extremism and/or dependence on military support from outside Arab Sunni states in the West, Shi’ite dependence on Iran in the east, and a constant “Kurdish problem” in the north that spills over into Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
At the same time, the United States cannot support an Iraq strategy that secures Iraq, recovers Mosul and the west, and offers some lasting form of stability, and leave eastern Syria under the control of hostile extremist movements. Simply degrading ISIL is not a strategy if some mix of hostile Sunni forces has a de facto sanctuary just across the border.
The United States needs a strategy for Syria, and not just for Iraq. It cannot simply wait, hope for some acceptable form of “burn out” and/or negotiation, and treat undefined and unstructured efforts at containment as the less attractive alternative. There may be no good alternatives, but the United States needs to determine this openly and at least show it is pursuing the least bad alternative, is doing its best to work with its allies, and fully understands the consequences of failing to link Iraq and Syria.
Iran: The Enemy of Our Enemy is Not Our Friend?
The State Department brief also only touches on the broader issues in the war, and one of them is Iran. In some abstract world where nations made decisions on the basis of rational bargaining, Iran’s leadership would see that its best security lay in a strong, independent, and united Iraq. It would see the advantages in an Iraqi democratic government that inevitably reflected the power of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority but also provided the security that only equity and unity can provide, and that acted as a bridge between Iran and better relations with the Arab Sunni nations in the region.
Some Iranian officials almost certainly see this need. The fact is, however, that the Supreme Leader, Iran’s hardliners, key elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the leadership of its Al Quds force do not. At best, they are still pursuing a policy of competing with the United States for military influence over the Iraqi military and police, Shi’ite militias, and even influence over Iraq’s Kurds.
At worst –and “at worst” now seems more likely than “at best” – Iran’s leaders are seeking an Iraq where Iran has dominant influence at the end of a war that the United States may have helped to win, but lacked the political visibility and presence on the ground to get the credit for. They seem willing to accept the risk of a divided Iraq where the more populated and oil rich areas near Iran are dependent on Iran, even if this means an alienated Sunni population in Iraq and even more stress between Iran and its Arab neighbors.
The United States cannot have a strategy in Iraq that does not address these issues more openly, or ignore Iran’s role in Syria. It cannot continue to let Iran control many of the “facts on the ground” by preventing the U.S. advise and assist mission from moving forward and helping Iraqi combat units, from keeping that advise and assist mission and the U.S. air campaign too small to be effective, and by failing to openly support some broader forms of political reform and unity.
It may well have to openly confront Iran when its actions seek to expand Iranian influence and undermine or weaken Iraq’s unity. One key area is the need to confront over the need to keep Iraq’s Shi’ite militias tightly controlled, avoid revenge, and support Iraq’s Sunnis. Another is its support of elements that rival or oppose Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts to bring unity, support Sunni leaders and forces, and give Iraq real independence.
Just as it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without a Syria strategy, it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without an Iran strategy. This does not mean the US should demonize Iran or fail to work with Iranians where there is a common interest. It does mean openly competing with the “worst case” Iranians, and not sacrificing Iraq for the nuclear negotiations.
The Need to Send Train and Assist Teams Forward
The State Department background brief does state the administration is reevaluating sending a larger and more effective train and assist movement forward to aid Iraq forces. It also touches on the slow progress of the effort to train moderate Syrian rebel forces. It does not, however, indicate that the White House is taking any action.
It also describes what is in many ways a more effective ISIL bombing effort that the US can mount. It notes that:
“Over the course of 96 hours in Ramadi, and what we’ve been able to collect looking at different things, about 30 suicide VBIDs in Ramadi and the environs of Ramadi. Ten of them, I’ve been told, had the explosive capacity of an Oklahoma City type attack.”
“…the attacks over the weekend in Ramadi were just quite devastating in terms of ISIL attacks. And you can go see them, and I have some pictures in my – there was a armored bulldozer which knocked over the T-wall perimeters, which then was the first explosion. They then had an armored dump truck, an armored Humvee, and you can see what they do. They weld these things so they’re totally impervious to a lot of weapons systems that the Iraqis have to try to take them out. It was one of – I have to say it was one of Abadi’s main demands when he was here. He needed a weapon system to defeat suicide VBIEDs. And we made the decision immediately while he was here to get 1,000 AT4 anti-tank systems to Iraqi Security Forces. And those are going to be arriving fairly soon. And that’s specifically, as I understand it – I’ll defer to experts on this, but that’s specifically a kind of close-in weapon system for a VBIED that is coming in your direction. The Peshmerga have been using them to good effect and we’re getting 1,000 to the Iraqi Security Forces.”
The key challenge here is not providing Iraq with more weapons or with forward air controllers. It is remembering a key lesson from Vietnam – and from all past train and assist efforts. Insurgents cannot be allowed to have a massive intelligence advantage on the ground, to learn the weakest links in the government forces and their defense, attack them, roll-up the weaker units, expose the flanks and position of the better units, and then force them into what as best is partially organized retreat.
It is also important to remember that no one can create effective combat leaders and forces from the rear. New and weak units need to have a small, but experienced team of combat leaders embedded with them. New combat leaders and units need months of on-the-ground help in getting the essentials of combat operations right. Modern forward air control is critical, and the use of drones can make it effective far beyond the line of sight, but so is human intelligence, and the constant assessment of tactics, defensive positions, patrol activity.
Forward deployed train and assist teams – usually special forces or rangers – are necessary to spot good combat leaders and warn against weak, ineffective, or corrupt ones. They are needed to provide intelligence backwards that static or inexperienced Iraq leaders and units can’t. They are needed to be a voice for active patrolling. At the same time, they needed to be a second voice when resupply, reinforcement, regrouping, and relief are truly needed. Someone has to bypass the barriers, rigidities, and sectarian/ethnic prejudices in the chain of command and send the right signals to the top. The Iraqis can’t do this yet.
Forward deployed train and assist teams are needed to encourage effective civil-military action in cases where the Iraqi unit has a different ethnic or sectarian bias or simply thinks in tactical terms rather than how to create a local capability to hold, recover, and build at both the military and civil levels.
These teams are needed now! They have been needed in Iraq and Afghanistan from the start. The same is true of a larger and more aggressive air campaign to support them and the overall efforts in both Iraq and Syria. There are times when support from the rear is enough. Several thousand years of military history is a warning that there are no times when leading from the rear is adequate in actual combat.
How Much US “Train and Assist” and Air Effort is Enough? Not the Effort we Now Have
What is equally important is that the State Department background brief describes what could be an effective Iraq response if the necessary resources are provided:
“…Iraqi political response has been encouraging. Prime Minister Abadi, who is an engineer by training, he immediately wants to get to the root of what exactly happened, what went wrong, what do they need to defend against these suicide VBIDs, what do they need to correct some of the deficiencies in the security forces, and whatever happened on – particularly on Sunday. And he’s been looking at it in terms of really fixing it at the root of what exactly happened.”
“…they released a seven-point program yesterday which we very much support. It’s focused on mobilizing tribal fighters in Anbar, with a streamlined delivery mechanism for weapons – that’s something we’ve been working on for some time, but that’s something that is starting to move. And we’re going to use this – this particular challenge to really accelerate it.”
“…Recruiting into the Iraqi Army and specifically in their program they released yesterday, they talk about the 7th Iraqi Army Division. That’s the really depleted Anbar-based division that we’re working with all the way out at Al Asad Air Base in western Anbar province. They talked about recalling the Iraqi police from Anbar. There’s about 24,000 police in Anbar who left their posts some time ago; they’ve issued amnesty for those police and asked to recall them. And anyway, we think this is a pretty good – a good program in terms of thinking about how to claw back what was lost in Anbar.”
“The Iraqi parliament today completed a second reading of the national guard law, which is also very important. And why this is important is because the model of the new government of how to stabilize Iraq is a much more decentralized model, much more autonomy in the provinces. And Abadi actually in the wake of this crisis called together all the governors and talked about decentralization, the importance of the governors taking responsibility in their areas as powers are devolved to their areas, and the national guard is a provincial-based security force.
The tribal mobilization, which is kind of the bridge to the national guard, is designed to collect the – what will be the foundation of a national guard. So the Iraqis have already allocated resources, and there’s a list of weapons that are approved for about 8,000 of the tribal fighters in Anbar, which will be ultimately the national guard. But that will take some time to get in place. But they’re moving forward with that.”
“… In the Iraqi plan that they put – they released yesterday, there’s also – they mentioned the stabilization funding mechanism, and they’ve approved the stabilization fund with the United Nations, which is pretty important, because what we found as we’ve been going forward here is that the Iraqis – the government remains pretty cash poor. It can’t access capital markets. It can’t do things to flood resources into areas that are cleared, and that’s remained a real problem. So this new funding mechanism that they’ve established with the UN is designed specifically to get at that problem, for kind of quick-hit projects as soon as areas are cleared, which is necessary. And also the humanitarian response, which is just massive, and making sure that the UN programs – because the UN teams in Iraq are doing an incredible, heroic job – are funded, and that’s something that the coalition will be helping out with as well.”
This does not mean a blank check or open-ended U.S. support for Iraq. The United States needs to fully assess the level of effort, aid, and support the Iraqi government will need to make this work. It means presenting a clear plan, clear milestones for action, clear criteria for ongoing support, and regular open-source reporting and measures of effectiveness. It must revise a strategy and plans when things go wrong, and even end U.S. support if the chances of success drop below a critical level.
The Administration and the Congress must go beyond the meaningless budgeting in the OCO budget, and empty, specious reporting in Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations report on “Operation Inherent Resolve.” It is time both the Administration and the Congress open showed they had assessed the risk and cost–benefits of what is being done, and took meaningful responsibility for their actions.
Providing forward train and assist teams, and an adequate U.S. military and civil effort, will mean casualties and costs. However, the “butcher’s bill” in war is determined by the total cost over time, not the losses and costs at any given moment. Not providing the right kind of train and assist mission can mean defeat –or extending the fighting for years. It can expose other Americans to attack over a far longer period of time, produce higher net casualties, and result in far higher net costs in dollars than decisive action. It can also empower a wide range of violent extremists and other conflicts.
And yes, sustaining an adequate effort may mean the Obama administration has to leave office encumbered by ongoing wars. However, it is time the President’s White House team learned that losing wars by default and inaction is scarcely a better historical record.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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