Obama’s Plus Up in Iraq: Incrementalism is Not a Strategy

There may be some merit in sending in 450 more advisors and support personnel to Iraq – raising the U.S. total to some 3,550 – and focusing on creating Sunni forces in Anbar. There may be some merit in deploying U.S. combat aircraft more forward to an Iraqi air base at Al Taqqadum in Anbar, and there may be some merit in trying to directly integrate more Sunnis into the Iraqi 7th and 8th divisions – the two divisions that will have to try and drive ISIL forces out of Anbar.

But , creeping incrementalism is rarely a way of correcting a failed or inadequate strategy, and this approach certainly is not a new strategy or a way of addressing the problems that the existing strategy does not address. The announcements of the last few days do not, by any means, reflect a new strategy, they do not address the problems in the existing strategy, and some proposals seem to be of questionable effectiveness.

A Grand Strategic Vacuum at Every Level

The recent announcement to send 450 more military advisers to Iraq does nothing to address several key strategic issues in which the existing “strategy” – if there is one – clearly fails to address. It does not address the steadily deteriorating situation in Syria, and the disintegration of Syria into three parts: Assad dominated territory, ISIL dominated territory, and territory dominated by other Islamists (including the Al Nusra Front, which is tied to Al Qaeda).

The boost in advisors and shift to Anbar seems to be decoupled from any overall strategy for dealing with the Iraqi security forces, and providing security and stability in liberated areas. There does not seem to be any conditionality in terms of reform of the Iraqi military or the kind of National Guard legislation that could give lasting meaning to training Sunni tribal forces. The focus on Anbar seems to exclude a new focus on the far more populated and strategically important areas in Mosul and Ninewa.

This approach does not address the general pointlessness of training 5,000 supposedly moderate rebels a year when our key Arab allies are supporting the non-ISIL rebel forces, when the last report on recruits for the 5,000 man force totaled all of 90, when there is no clear political goal or way of dealing with Russia and Iran, when Syria’s economy has collapsed, and when more than 11 million of some 19 million people are refugees or internally displaced persons within homes or jobs of their own.

The announcement does nothing to address the critical issue of Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria, or of countering its growing influence in Iraq and Syria. It could lead Iran to try to use Shi’ite militias and its advisory efforts to block U.S. efforts to reach Iraq’s Sunnis, and they certainly seem unlikely to have an end game where the United States creates an Iraq independent enough to stand up to Iran, or do anything to address the role of Iran and the Hezbollah in Syria. It also does nothing to strengthen the weak to non-existent bridges between the Iraq government and our major Arab allies, or raise their flow of aid to Iraq, as a counter to Iran.

It does not address Iraq’s deep and growing internal political and military divisions between Arab Sunni, Arab Shi’ite, and Kurd – divisions likely to be steadily fueled by Iraq’s much lower oil revenues, Iranian pressure, and the Kurdish seizure of new disputed territory in Ninewa and around Kirkuk. It has been clear from the start that success in Iraq required a far better solution to its internal problems – and quite possibly some form of federalism – as well as much more effective governance.

Iraq has to make its own decisions, but providing strong U.S. encouragement, plans, options, and a truly proactive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad are changes in strategy that are long overdue. So is a U.S. aid plan that focuses more on helping the Iraqi government reform and address Sunni and Kurdish expectations and needs. Leading from the rear is one thing, remaining in the rear and doing little or nothing is quite another. And, this is particularly true when there is no apparent end game for lasting stability and security in either Iraq or Syria.

More broadly, this approach does not address the rise of ISIL, Al Qaeda, and violent Islamic extremists in other areas like Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan. There is no overall strategy to deal with a broader problem, reassure our allies in the region, or clearly show them we not only have a strong and coherent series of inter-related efforts, but also are not taking steps that could aid Iran. Iraq and Syria need to be part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with violent extremism and Iran, and we clearly do not have one.

Reinforcing the Wrong Advisory and Train and Assist Mission

At a more detailed level, however, sending in more advisors into Anbar that have to remain in the rear – which Michael Gordon of the New York Times reports will really only be 110 real advisors with the other 340 personnel acting in support or protection roles – does not put teams forward. And “team” is the critical word.

Air controllers can help, but Iraqi forces need experienced combat advisors on the scene. They need help in reaching back to Baghdad with voices that can bypass a corrupt and ineffective command and support system. They need the kind of small Special Forces or Ranger teams that can provide real combat advice and make calls for resupply, reinforcement, and air support convincing.

They need a forward presence that Sunni tribal units can trust, that acts as a buffer between Sunni and Shi’ite, that can help Sunni volunteers and largely Shi’ite units and officers integrate effectively into Iraqi Army units. This happens on the scene, and not in the rear. They also need to ensure that Sunnis are not simply thrust into overloaded and exhausted elements of the Iraqi army in the search for quick victories.

They need forward personnel that can help deal with Iraqi sectarian and tribal issues, Shi’ite militias, malign Iranian influence, and also warn when a unit or command is exhausted, is not being properly supported on its flanks, or is running into trouble for other reasons. Also, in terms of a “win, hold, build” campaign, some outside influence can also help go from “win,” to “hold/recover,” and lay the groundwork for “build.” Simply defeating ISIL is at best half the story. Avoiding abuses and revenge and ensuring civilians can return and are properly treated is equally critical.

And this is only part of the story. The problem is not simply to rebuild combat units, it is to embed advisers in order to rebuild the Iraqi command structure and transform the slow moving and divided structure at the top that waits for signals from Baghdad, distrusts request from below, hoards resources, takes forever to react, has weak and corrupt elements, and ensures that key supplies, reinforcements, requests for aid support, time for recovery and relief, and clear insistence that officers lead rather than run, and help restore and fully implement the structure Iraq needs to function as effective forces.

Far too often, the problem is not unwillingness to fight. It is failure to supply, support, or reinforce the fighter. It is exhausting the best units by keeping them forward and engaged. It is leaving them with poor officers or poor units on their flanks.

Reinforcing an Uncertain Air Mission

To begin with, it is far from clear that the problem in reaction time is tied to base location in Iraq. There may be useful symbolism in moving U.S. air units forward, but the main problems in providing close air and interdiction strike support seem to lie in confidence in Iraq requests, delays and uncertainties in the Iraqi command chain, links between Iraqi Army units and Shi’ite militias, the limits imposed by U.S. rules of engagement, and the difficulties in striking light infantry targets in populated and built up areas.

The need to both change rules of engagement to focus less on the civilian casualties and collateral damage per strike and more on the cumulative cost of not acting over time is left unaddressed. So are the abilities of forces to exploit them, and the continuing loss of the strategic communications battle in explaining the use of airpower.

Nothing is being said about conducting a more intense campaign, altering the rules of engagement so ISIL cannot hide so effectively behind human shields, and tying air operations to strategic communications to explain and justify them and counter ISIL propaganda. There is still no clear strategy for targeting and operations in Syria, or efforts to limit Assad’s use of airpower. There is no clear strategy for the use of airpower in Iraq that is tied to systematically attacking ISIL leadership and capability.

There are no meaningful metrics of the impact of the airstrikes to date, and no specific explanations of how airpower is being used. The fact that 77 tanks were killed roughly thousands of sorties ago is scarcely of strategic meaning. The claim 10,000-12,000 ISIL fighters were killed is a bit jarring when estimates of its total strength are often below 50,000-65,000 and estimates of foreign fighters range from around 20,000 to 32,000.

It is also unclear how the Iraqi and allied air forces are performing, what the strategy is for building up Iraq’s fixed wing and attack helicopter forces. But then, announcing arms sales has never explained the overall U.S. and Iraqi strategies for procurement and force building. There has been no official summary of how much equipment the Iraqi forces have lost or seen seized, of the flow of replacements, and the U.S. strategy and conditions for sales and support.

Strategic Communications, Uncertain Victories, and Certain Defeats

Finally, both the U.S. and Iraqi governments need to explain their strategies and actions in ways that communicate what is happening in making longer term improvements in the Iraq forces, the military situation, and Iraqi unity and governance. There needs to be a level of strategic communication that explains on broad level, justifies and explains, show that Iraq is learning from its failures, and above all shows Iraq is moving towards some point in time when it will liberate Mosul and Ninewa, and address the time and resources that are needed.

The United States needs to convince its allies that it has a strategy for Iraq and Syria beyond “tweaking incrementalism”. It needs to show the United States is not tilting towards Iran, backing Assad, or indifferent to key humanitarian issues and the need for some kind of favorable real-world outcome. This strategic communications campaign also needs to be tailored to Iraq, as well as other Arab, Turkish, and allied audiences. So far, our messages have been shallow, faltering, and largely reactions to political problems or defeats. It is true that the best strategic communications are having the best – or at least winning – strategy. That still does not excuse the level of U.S. failure to date.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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