KEY FACTORS SHAPING THE PRESIDENT’S ISLAMIC STATE SPEECH
By Anthony Cordesman
09 Sep 14. There are several critical aspects of the U.S. strategy in Iraq that the President may not be able to address in full. They will, however, be critical to what the United States can and cannot do in the future.
The United States Already Has a Strategy
The real world context is important. The President is now trapped to some extent by his previous misstatement about the United States not having a strategy. Anyone who looks seriously at the timeline of U.S. action will see he is now formally announcing a strategy that the United States not only had already developed in July, but partly begun to implement after the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) first made major gains back in December 2013. At the same time, there are many good reasons the President needs to be cautious about what he says and not speak too openly about the details.
Deploying Ground Troops
There is a critical difference between no ground troops and no major ground combat units. The United States already has some 1,100 military personnel in Iraq and counting. It will need more in the future — plus civil intelligence personnel — for training, equipment transfers, targeting and intelligence analysis, and various enabling functions. Ideally, it will also need Special Forces or there equivalent to work with Sunni areas that return to supporting the government or become hostile to the Islamic State, work with the Kurds, and embed in Iraq forces to help provide tactical guidance and air strike planning.
At the same time, the President has very serious reasons not to commit major land combat units that have nothing to do with any U.S. war fatigue. This is not simply a war against the Islamic State. It is an effort to end a low level civil war and a mix of Arab-Kurdish ethnic and Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions that ex-Prime Minister Maliki did so much to create and that enabled the Islamic State to make major gains in the Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq.
Even if the United States could suddenly deploy, supply, and base major ground units, it could not risk thrusting them into situations where they would be perceived as taking sides on an ethnic or sectarian basis or becoming tied down in missions separating Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish and Sunni and Shi’ite forces and militias – just as it cannot allow itself to use airpower in such ways.
Equally important, Iraqi forces can never recover from the corruption and sectarian abuses caused by Maliki, and defeat the Islamic State, unless they can be remade into nation, rather than Shi’ite forces, and all of Iraq’s major factions unite. This is not a mission for U.S. combat units, although it will be a real mission for U.S. advisors and enablers.
At the same time, if such unity can be developed, the Islamic State forces still seem to consist of a maximum of some 30,000-45,000 men, only roughly a third of which are highly skilled forces. Under these conditions — coupled to the extremism of the Islamic State — Iraqi government forces may well be able to handle all of the ground mission.
The Iraqi Government is Still Incapable of Unity and Leadership and U.S. Strategy is Fighting a Political Battle to End a Low-Level Iraqi Civil War.
The new Abadi government is still extremely unstable, and only 179 members of 379 in the Council of the Republic participated in its selection. It may not survive, and has no Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior. The Kurds have only made tenuous commitment to supporting it, no major new Sunni faction has joined and the Sunnis who do participate only provide tentative support. Maliki and Shi’ites like Hadi al-Amri who are linked to Iran and militias who have attacked Sunnis are still part of the new government.
The United States still faces as much of a threat from the weakness of the Iraqi government as it does from the threat of the Islamic State, and cannot really c