Reasons not to dally in Iraq

President Obama’s strategy towards Iraq over the last year has been more right than wrong. After the tragic fall of Mosul and other key regions in the nation’s Sunni-dominated northwest in the spring of 2014, Obama used U.S. airpower to help the Kurds fend off ISIL attacks against them, helped engineer an Iraqi political transition that replaced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with the current leader, Haider al-Abadi, and then introduced modest numbers of American trainers to help the disintegrating and discredited Iraqi Army begin to rebuild. All of these steps were taken in the right order—first, the use of airpower in an emergency mode to stem off further inroads by ISIL, then the necessary political transition that was essential to get Sunni and Kurdish support for the central Iraqi government, and finally the military training needed to begin to repair the damage that Maliki had done over the years to the Iraqi armed forces.

But since the winter, U.S. strategy towards Iraq has floundered. The earlier prediction of General Lloyd Austin, Combatant Commander of Central Command, that Mosul would be retaken by this spring proved too optimistic by perhaps a year. Success this spring in Tikrit, due partly to the role of Iran-backed Shia militias, was more than outweighed by the recent fall of Ramadi in Anbar province. Overall, ISIL shows no signs of a net weakening in Iraq—which when compared with Syria is supposed to be the easier of the two main fronts where America and its allies must eventually attack and defeat it.

The planned introduction of several hundred American advisors, on top of the 3,000 already in Iraq, to establish a major training facility in Anbar province is welcome news. And it was understandable that President Obama, always opposed to the Iraq war and very wary of again committing American troops to a significant combat role there, would seek an incremental and minimalist step towards helping the Iraqis. Also welcome is General Martin Dempsey’s statement that the United States may expand its efforts a bit more in the weeks and months to come.

However, while logically understandable at one level, Mr. Obama’s plan is too restrained. He should keep with the basic gist of his strategy but at the same time intensify the American role roughly threefold, in terms of troop numbers—making it akin to our current mission in Afghanistan, where 10,000 U.S. troops now support the Afghan armed forces as they do 95 to 99 percent of all fighting in their country. There are three main dangers to Mr. Obama’s excessive caution and incrementalism in Iraq:

  1. Our strategy puts Abadi’s political future at risk. Prime Minister al-Abadi is about the best Iraqi leader we could hope for in his current position. The key Sunni leader, former deputy prime minister, Rafe al-Issawi, called him “a good guy” in a recent speech at Brookings, and that is the kind of support one hears even from those Iraqis who doubt his effectiveness. Meanwhile, however, former prime minister al-Maliki seeks to undermine Abadi’s rule, perhaps with an eye towards regaining his previous job, and other Shia chauvinists also question Abadi’s outreach efforts to work with the Sunnis and Kurds. Were Abadi to be seen as ineffective and fall from power, the entire foundation on which Obama’s current political and military strategy is now wisely based would fall away.
  2. Knowing this, Abadi has no choice but to tolerate many Shia militias. These Iran-backed groups are, at one level, a fact of life in Iraq, and cannot be wished away. They helped save Baghdad last summer, when ISIL had designs on the city, and are otherwise a more reliable anti-ISIL fighting force right now than any other Iraqi organization except the Kurdish peshmerga. But they risk worsening sectarian tension and reigniting civil war in Iraq; in the same Brookings speech, Issawi likened them to ISIL, in fact. Thus, the worst of them need to be corralled, and over time their fighters need to be individually vetted and brought under the organizational mantra of the Iraqi National Guard—a force that exists only on paper at present, and that is desperately needed to deal with Iraq’s current sectarian divisions and to compensate for the inadequacy of its main army. Abadi can only rein in the militias if his political position is strong and if battlefield trends against ISIL start to go consistently his way.
  3. A military strategy of incrementalism gives the enemy time to adjust. If Iraqi forces backed up by U.S. and allied airpower can only gradually expand and intensify their operations, ISIL will learn tactical lessons and redress some of its vulnerabilities—such as where to hide their headquarters and leaders within cities they currently control. While “shock and awe” has a bad name in Iraq, it is an undeniable military reality that hitting hard keeps an enemy off balance and creates opportunities to exploit. Stan McChrystal showed this in how he commanded Joint Special Operations Command forces in Iraq before and during the surge, and it remains true today. In fact, this is one reason why I favor going beyond the usual recommendations for added American forces in Iraq—more trainers, forward air controllers, forward-stationed advisors—and advocate as well the temporary (and unannounced) deployment of direct action special forces. They could team with Iraqi special forces in a vigorous raiding campaign against ISIL, once the necessary battlefield preparations have been made (perhaps later this year or early next).

Mr. Obama’s basic strategy in Iraq is not unsound. But poor and tepid implementation of even a good strategy can spell defeat. We need to do more than the minimal incrementalism, and step up our game in Iraq twofold or threefold in the coming months.