President Obama’s announcement that he is sending some 300 Special Operations personnel to Iraq is a small but important step in the right direction. The president is at least willing to acknowledge that the U.S. has a real stake in the future of Iraq and that we have to use military power to protect our interests. That’s a step forward from his previous stance, which seemed to be that the only interest we have is in “ending the war” (i.e., ending our involvement in the war). But this latest proposal is a long way from the kind of plan that would actually be necessary to roll back recent advances both by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by the Iranian Quds Force which has been amping up its presence in Iraq in response to ISIS’s gains.
There was, for a start, no mention of air strikes and no mention of raids by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has become so effective at targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Both will be necessary to do serious damage to Sunni and Shiite extremists–America’s enemies–who are operating en masse in both Syria and Iraq.
Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.
For this reason it is imperative that U.S. personnel work closely not only with the Iraqi military but also with the Kurdish peshmerga and whatever anti-ISIS forces can be cobbled together among the Sunnis–call it the Son of the Sons of Iraq (as the Anbar Awakening militia was known). Moreover, it is imperative that the U.S. not forget about the “S”–Syria”–in ISIS. We need to hit ISIS on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, which will require doing much more to train and equip the Free Syrian Army and possibly support their operations with air power.
But doing all this–partnering with Sunnis and Kurds and the Free Syrian Army as well as the Iraqi Security Forces; launching air strikes and Special Operations raids–will require a commitment much larger than 300 troops. I don’t have an order of battle worked out, but I’m guessing we are talking about a minimum of a few thousand troops–in other words at least the number that Obama was prepared to leave behind after 2011 if a Status of Forces Agreement had been worked out. Doing that, of course, would require the president to admit he was wrong to pull the U.S. troops out in the first place, but absent such an implicit admission it is hard to see how Iraq can be stabilized.
I don’t mean to slight the political element, which will ultimately be the most important. I have repeatedly argued and still believe that one of our primary objectives has to be Maliki’s removal and replacement with a more inclusive leader. I am happy to see the administration signaling that it agrees. But on the issue of tactics and timing I am becoming convinced that it is counterproductive to premise greater U.S. military action on political progress in Baghdad. We need to pursue both lines of operation, political and military, simultaneously. In fact the greater commitment we make militarily to Iraq’s future, the more say we will have in the formation of the next government.
This, by the way, is a task that Obama needs to stop delegating to Joe Biden and others. He needs to make the same realization that George W. Bush made, which is that the future of U.S. interests in the region–and of his presidency–are dependent on a successful outcome in Iraq and therefore it behooves the commander in chief to get more personally involved in all matters pertaining to Iraq. The president, whoever he is, brings more gravitas to the negotiating table than a vice president or an ambassador. Alas there is still no sense that Obama is giving Iraq–and Syria–the kind of focus and attention and resources that these countries deserve in their hour of crisis.