At first blush, President Obama’s decision to deploy 300 American special forces soldiers to Iraq seems to be a small, but smart step to take in the current, exceptionally challenging circumstances. It may well be. There are unquestionably intelligent and positive aspects to it.
However, because it is a small step, any value it will have will be limited—although there is value in that too. Perhaps of greater importance, there are some very important aspects of this move that remain unknown, at least outside the U.S. government. Indeed, to come to any more meaningful judgment about this move, either positive or negative, the public would need to have several critical additional questions answered. Without that information, it is ultimately impossible to judge it properly.
This is not a criticism of the Administration’s decision per se. Washington may have already addressed all of these questions and may have good answers to them. The Administration may also have good reason to keep those answers secret for now. It is simply to note that these questions are among the most important in trying to assess just how beneficial or detrimental this move might be.
The Known Knowns
We should start with what we know, or at least can reasonably assume. First, there will be benefits to the deployment almost regardless of other considerations. These include:
- The presence of American advisors will probably help solidify the defense of Baghdad and other cities in central Iraq that have not yet fallen to the Sunni militant coalition.
- They will provide some greater insight into the situation in Iraq, and particularly the situation with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and its new Shi’a coalition partners. (The extent of this may vary widely, however. See below.)
- They may help to counterbalance Iranian influence. The commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasim Sulaymani, arrived in Baghdad last week and there are reports that he brought Iranian advisors with him. While the United States may or may not be able to engage in tacit cooperation with Iran in Iraq, and it is unlikely that 300 advisors can outweigh Iranian support to the Maliki government, it is important not to cede the field to Iran altogether, and these U.S. soldiers will be a visible symbol of Washington’s continued interest in Iraq.
- In a similar vein, having American advisors present may remind the Maliki government’s officials and officers of how helpful and powerful U.S. military support can be. That could serve as an incentive to Prime Minister Maliki to agree to the kinds of political changes that Washington has been rightly demanding as a condition for broader American military assistance. It may well be a vain hope, but that is pretty much what we have left at this point.
All that said, the impact of 300 American advisors is inevitably going to be limited. That is especially so since the worst problems that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have experienced since the start of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) offensive last week have been at the tactical, not the strategic level where these advisors will be employed. The ISF experienced similar problems at the tactical level during the six months prior to the ISIS offensive, during which it was fighting Sunni militants in Anbar. Like Iraqi military forces throughout the state’s modern history, the ISF has suffered from poor junior officering. In addition, its formations in northern Iraq disintegrated as a result of demoralization and poor unit cohesion, both likely caused by the prime minister’s politicization of the ISF over the past three to four years. Having 300 American advisors sprinkled among the government’s joint operations centers and brigade and division headquarters will have little, if any, impact on these tactical problems.
The counterargument to that is that any sign of American commitment may bolster ISF morale, and the problems of demoralization and poor unit cohesion may already have been ameliorated by the deployment of Shi’a militias and the regrouping of the ISF. The Shi’a militias are every bit as vicious and committed to the fight as their Sunni counterparts. They will doubtless help stiffen the spines of the residual ISF units. Moreover, what is left of the ISF is increasingly Shi’a soldiers and officers (although not entirely) and these men are likely to fight much harder in defense of their homes and families in Baghdad and the other Shi’a cities of central and southern Iraq than they did for the mostly Sunni cities of the north.
The Known Unknowns
What kind of access will the American advisors have—and did the government of Iraq request them?
So far, all that we have heard is the President say that he is sending them. We don’t know how that came about. Presumably the Iraqi government agreed to take them. What we don’t know is whether Prime Minister Maliki and his lieutenants wanted them, let alone asked for them.
That is important because if Baghdad wanted them, then the U.S. advisors are far more likely to have both access and authority, which are critical to their impact. On the other hand, if Maliki really wanted airstrikes and only grudgingly agreed to take the advisors instead, their impact may be marginal. In that case, Baghdad might keep the U.S. personnel isolated from its intelligence and command staffs. It serves no purpose of ours to have an American advisor cooped up in some antechamber while the Iraqi personnel (and perhaps Iranian advisors) are making all of the decisions somewhere else. One way of knowing whether that is likely to happen is to understand the circumstances in which Maliki accepted the advisors, and what kind of access he has agreed to grant them.
What kind of authority will American advisors have over Iraqi soldiers?
A related issue is that of the advisor’s authority. Technically speaking, advisors advise, they do not command. Of course, since the beginning of time, trusted (or simply powerful) foreign advisors have often served as de facto commanders, issuing orders directly to the troops or through the mouthpiece of the nominal indigenous commander. In contrast, there are also plenty of historical examples of foreign advisors being ignored by their indigenous charges. Given the Maliki government’s (understandable) suspicion regarding U.S. motives, what role these U.S. advisors will be able to play in guiding Baghdad’s military operations is a critical question.
The issue of the authority of these advisors also speaks to the question of culpability. According to the Administration, the American advisors will be attached to various headquarters in central and northern Iraq—the Joint Operations Centers (JOC) that the Prime Minister uses to directly control Iraqi security operations, as well as certain division and brigade commands. At least the JOCs, but probably the brigade and division headquarters as well, now appear to command both ISF formations and Shi’a militia bands.
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As I noted above, these Shi’a militias are every bit as vicious and determined as their Sunni counterparts. Like their Sunni counterparts, they may commit all kinds of atrocities—from killing or torturing enemy prisoners to slaughtering rival civilians in pursuit of ethnic cleansing. If there are American officers attached to ISF headquarters that control Shi’a militia units that engage in such atrocities, it may be very hard to avoid being seen as complicit in those atrocities under any circumstances. But that will be especially the case if the American advisors have actual command authority of some kind.
Of course, the more command authority they have, hopefully the less likelihood that Shi’a militias under their command will engage in such behavior. Moreover, without such authority there would be much less of a rationale for committing these American troops and putting them in harm’s way.
What is the political-military strategy that the American advisors are intended to implement?
This brings up the last unknown, which is the goal and strategy that these troops will be sent to implement. I will put it this way. The United States and the Maliki government (and the Iranian regime, for that matter) clearly share an interest in defending Baghdad and the other cities of central and southern Iraq from conquest by the Sunni militant coalition. However, Prime Minister Maliki is also determined to reconquer the rest of the Iraqi territory lost to the ISIS offensive last week. That would seem to run counter to the Administration’s (entirely correct) insistence that the United States should not choose sides in the Iraqi civil war, nor help either to militarily crush the other (and jeopardize the safety of its civilian populace). That is why Washington has, again rightly, insisted on a political strategy that would reconcile Iraq’s warring communities and ensure the safety of all.
Has the Obama Administration agreed that these American advisors would support Prime Minister Maliki’s objective of retaking all of Iraq? If so, will American advisors advise/lead/accompany Maliki’s forces (ISF and Shi’a militias) if they are able to fulfill the Prime Minister’s goal of counterattacking into the Sunni-populated regions of Iraq where the potential for ethnic cleansing and atrocities against civilians will increase dramatically? If not, does the Iraqi government understand this? Have we made clear to Baghdad that our advisors will only assist with defensive operations and not with any counteroffensives to retake the Sunni-populated regions of Iraq? Is Baghdad comfortable with that? (And if not, will it lead to the very exclusion of our advisors from Iraqi intelligence collection and command decisions entailed in the first question above?)
Again, Washington may have had all of these conversations with Baghdad already and may have received definitive, satisfactory answers to all of them. Let’s hope that they have. If they have, and they can reassure the American people—or at least our elected representatives in the Congress—that they have, then we should have much greater confidence that this represents a small, but intelligent step to start to deal with the massive problem of Iraq. If they have not, then this can only undermine our confidence in the viability and even utility of this deployment. Until we know the answers to these questions, we simply do not have the information necessary to reach a full conclusion one way or the other.