Yesterday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that “specialized expeditionary targeting forces” would be sent to Iraq. Translated into plain English, this apparently means that a Joint Special Operations Task Force will be sent to Erbil, in the Kurdish north, to launch regular raids on ISIS “high-level targets” in Iraq and Syria. This was a good idea when I suggested it in November 2014, and it remains a good idea today; the only mystery is why it took a year to implement this step.
By itself, however, JSOC will not be able to defeat ISIS any more than it was able to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, from 2003 to 2006. That will require an integrated politico-military strategy of offering Sunnis a better political deal while also sending more U.S. troops to galvanize and support an uprising against ISIS.
But is the idea of deploying more U.S. troops a dead letter because of opposition from Baghdad? The crack foreign policy reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin quote an unnamed “senior” State Department official (Brett McGurk?) as saying, “Ground troops at this point is just not politically sustainable in Iraq.” According to this official, Iraqi opposition to ground forces “put a ceiling” on what the U.S. could offer militarily.
This opposition is hardly surprising or unprecedented. It is little remembered today, but then-Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki also opposed the U.S. surge in 2007 because he had a grossly exaggerated view of what Iraqi forces could accomplish on their own. However, President Bush, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and General David Petraeus brought him around. It may well be possible for President Obama to bring Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi around as well, if Obama were to show the kind of presidential leadership which has so far been MIA in Iraq.
In reality, it is far from clear what Abadi really thinks. He is hardly his own man. Real power in Baghdad is exercised by the Iranians and their proxies, who control the Shiite militias that are the strongest military force in the country. Of course, they don’t want U.S. troops — that would interfere with the Iranian takeover of the Shiite heartland.
But we don’t need to give the Iranian-dominated regime in Baghdad a veto on how we fight the threat from ISIS. Iraqi sovereignty is a joke at this point — Iraqi territory is subdivided between Iran, ISIS, and the Kurdish Regional Government. We don’t have to respect this fiction if the result is, as it is today, to enable power grabs by our twin foes, ISIS, and Iran.
In fact, as I’ve been arguing all along, we may need to go around Baghdad to directly arm and train the Sunnis and Kurds. In the worst-case scenario, if we do this, we might have to pull all U.S. personnel out of Baghdad and other Shiite-dominated areas so they are not targets of Iranian retaliation. Instead, our forces could operate out of the KRG initially and also from neighboring states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and eventually from Anbar and Ninevah provinces.
It would be nice to have the support of the ramshackle government in Baghdad in the fight against ISIS. But lack of such support cannot be a deal-breaker in doing what needs to be done to destroy a terrorist state that threatens the U.S. and our allies.