“The four-star commander of war operations in Iraq and Syria said politics is the key to defeating the Islamic militants there — and more U.S. troops will not necessarily help resolve the complex sectarian conflict roiling the two nations.”
Except for the reference to Syria, this sounds like something that General George Casey would have said between 2004 and 2006 when he was the top U.S. commander in Iraq. In fact it is a comment made just last week by General Lloyd Austin, the commander of Central Command.
There is no doubt that Austin is right today, as Casey was once right, that Iraqi politics holds the solution to dealing with Iraqi problems. But what Casey didn’t grasp, as he steadfastly refused to ask for more troops, was that U.S. forces, if intelligently employed, could alter Iraqi politics in beneficial ways, whereas failure to send more forces would lead to greater chaos and increased polarization, making political progress impossible. In fact, the surge of 2007-2008, which Casey opposed, created a breakthrough that allowed Iraqi politics to begin functioning again.
That lesson applies today. As long as Iraq continues to be split between the forces of ISIS and the Quds Force, political progress will be impossible. But if the U.S. can foster greater progress in rolling back ISIS, the resulting sense of security could undermine the support that Iranian-backed militias have gained among Iraqi Shiites.
Such progress will not come about if the U.S. is standing on the lines, however. It will only happen if the U.S. does more to aid the creation of indigenous security forces–especially among the Sunni tribes–that can fight back effectively against ISIS. And that, in turn, is unlikely to happen when the Obama administration is willing to put no more than 3,000 troops on the ground and to prevent them from accompanying indigenous forces into combat where the American presence, however small, could be crucial to success. If the U.S. ramps up its involvement deploying, say, 15,000 advisers and Special Operations personnel and relaxes their rules of engagement, it will not only have a greater chance of achieving battlefield success against ISIS but also of boosting American influence to affect the Iraqi political process.
It is quite possible that the president will refuse to do more no matter what because he is politically and ideologically opposed to greater American involvement in Iraq or the Middle East more broadly. But as a first step it is important that the U.S. commander for the region–that would be Gen. Austin–speak bluntly and forthrightly to the president, telling him that the U.S. will never achieve his objective to “degrade and eventually defeat” ISIS unless it makes more of a commitment. Comments to the effect that it’s all on the Iraqis to make political progress–and that there is little we can do until then–don’t help.