It appears President Barack Obama meant it last week when he told Iraqi leaders: “We can’t do this for you.”
After considering his options, Obama said Thursday he would send up to 300 United States special operation troops to help the Iraqis stave off militants from the Sunni-backed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, who are determined to overthrow the Shia-led government.
The 300 military advisers will set up joint command centers in Baghdad and in northern Iraq to assist Iraqi security forces. “They will largely be special forces. Advising and assisting is a common mission for these troops, all over the world. They will, of course, work closely with those advisors already at the embassy as part of the Office of Security Cooperation,” a senior defense official told Defense One. “They arrive in small numbers in the very near future. Their mission is to assess the state of the Iraqi Security Forces, the security situation on the ground and the feasibility of future advisors.
The new troops are being sent in addition to about 160 troops already sent to secure the embassy and other facilities in the capital, and another 100 who are on standby outside of Iraq, if needed. About 200 U.S. military personnel who have been working out of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad since the war officially ended in 2011.
It’s unclear if the 300 additional troops will help U.S. military officials in calling in air strikes or other military strikes against ISIL fighters, many of whom have been joined by Baathist separatists once loyal to Saddam Hussein. Iraqi security forces have been joined by Shiite militia fighters intent on not letting the Sunnis take over control of Iraq.
And therein lies the problem. The U.S. has the power to attack elements inside Iraq – but which ones? Senior defense officials have stepped up intelligence gathering in the past week to try to get a handle on all the factions fighting each other.
“These forces are very much intermingled. It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking it,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a Senate hearing on Thursday. In one example, he said, an Iraqi base was overrun but then retaken by friendly Kurdish fighters in short order. “In the course of about 36 hours, we had Iraqi Army units, we had ISIL and then we had the Peshmerga in that same facility.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said following Thursday’s closed door briefing on Iraq that part of the role of the 300 advisors will be advising on “prospects for effective air strikes.”
“I think it’s keeping that option open for the president, making it a possibility, because they don’t want to even consider air strikes unless they are effective,” Levin said. “And the question is, can you separate, for instance, the population from the tanks and artillery, and whether or not you can do something effective. So the noncombat advisors would be in a position to do that, and it’s very important it be understood these are not people that are intended to engage in combat.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he’s not sure what Obama’s end-game is. “Three hundred Americans is not going to solve the problem of solving the advance of this group that is literally more extreme than core al-Qaeda,” he told CNN. Chambliss said Obama is “probably thinking more about drones than he is thinking about sending F-16s” into Iraq.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama is wrong to make political concessions by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a condition of U.S. military support.
“We are deeply concerned that the president continues to make political change in Iraq the prerequisite for greater U.S. military and other actions that could begin reversing the momentum of [ISIL] and improving the security situation in the country,” the two senators said in a joint statement responding to Obama’s Thursday announcement. “It would obviously be ideal for Iraqi leaders to set aside their differences and embrace national reconciliation now, prior to a greater U.S. commitment to the security of the country. However, a key lesson of recent history in Iraq is that it is extremely difficult for Iraqis to make political progress when the security situation is deteriorating rapidly, as it is currently.”
“[ISIL] is on the march. Radical Shia militias are gathering strength. Iraq’s Security Forces are struggling and, in places, failing. The country is descending into sectarian conflict. And Iraq’s dependence on Iran is deepening. We must act now to help Iraqis arrest their country’s descent into chaos, or the current crisis may soon spiral further out of control.”
But Levin said the president’s step to send additional advisors is part of a “reasonable approach,” and reiterated that any military action will be ineffective without a unified, inclusive Iraqi government.
“I would not even consider air strikes unless a few things were true,” he said. “One is that there be a very strong consensus on the part of the leadership of all of the elements of the Iraqi people – Sunni, Shia, Kurds, religious minorities — that requested future air strikes.”
“They may not be able to form a government at this time, because the parliament has not even been approved yet,” he added, but said a formal request “that something beyond these noncombat advisors take place, such as air strikes,” can only come from a government that truly represents all of Iraq’s factions.
He continued that he would not support going beyond noncombat advisors unless top U.S. military leaders assured air strikes would be effective — “and we do not know that yet — I hope we’ll find out next week” – and unless Iraq’s neighbors also supported such action.
“So I think extreme caution is the word of the day.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also said Thursday that the ultimate solution to the chaos in Iraq must come from the Iraqi government. “These special operators will assess the situation on the ground, help evaluate gaps in Iraqi security forces, and increase their capacity to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. However, as the president has repeatedly made clear, Iraq’s problems cannot be resolved through American action alone, or through military force alone. The only viable, long-term solution is a political one that brings together the Iraqi people and addresses the legitimate interests and concerns of all of Iraq’s communities. Iraq’s government must summon the courage to unite and lead all of its people.”
Obama said the U.S. will not be drawn into another long, protracted war with Iraq. “I think we always have to guard against mission creep. So let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again. We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”