President Barack Obama’s plan to send an additional 450 to 500 troops to Iraq’s Anbar province won’t be his last word on the crisis posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), several senior serving and retired U.S. military officers believe. Turning the tide against ISIL in Iraq will require a more robust U.S. military commitment, with options for escalation a matter of lively debate.
Obama on Tuesday announced that the additional troops would be deployed to train units of the Iraq Security Force (ISF), which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said “showed no will to fight” to prevent the city of Ramadi from falling to ISIL. The administration also hoped those troops could provide a bridge to Anbar’s Sunni militias, which had initially fought the U.S. occupation, then after 2006 sided with the U.S. against Al-Qaeda, but had been alienated by the Shia-led government in Baghdad. The new training commitment would bring the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq to just over 3,500.
That won’t change the equation, one senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me following Obama’s announcement. “There’s a growing awareness that the program to train and equip [the Iraqi army] just isn’t going to work, and that the U.S. is going to have to do a lot more. Obama doesn’t want to admit it, but I think everything is on the table.”
This senior officer added that there are three options for escalation currently under discussion at the Pentagon: embedding U.S. troops in Iraqi units to strengthen them; expanding the air war against ISIL command, control and resource targets; and deploying U.S. ground forces on a combat mission to defeat ISIL in Anbar.
The embedding option is favored by a small, but vocal group of former officers who served in Anbar during the years of the Awakening movement, when U.S. forces forged an alliance with Sunni tribes that had turned on Al-Qaeda. One of these officers is retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as a key adviser to the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, from 2007 to 2008. The fall of Ramadi, Mansoor has written, means that the U.S. will need to send in more military advisers and trainers, and that “we are going to have to accompany Iraqi forces into combat.” Another former officer, retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, agrees, saying the street-by-street fighting in Anbar must be done by Iraqi soldiers “with American advisers in close support.”
Senior Marine veterans of Anbar also favor the embedding option. One of these Marines, speaking on condition of anonymity, said embedding even a small number of U.S. special forces trainers in ISF units — “four or five for every Iraqi battalion ought to do it,” he said — would make a huge difference. That view was echoed by a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General who served in Baghdad. He told me that “putting even a small number of [U.S.] advisers inside of ISF units would significantly strengthen the Iraqi army’s ability to fight ISIL. We would provide the leadership and direction they lack.”
Describing such a deployment option as a “white” special forces program (as opposed to a “black” one, which would put U.S. troops in direct combat roles), this former Army officer says that such a decision would “add steel to Iraqi formations” and “allow for more direct fire support from U.S. aircraft” during anti-ISIL operations. Boosting the ISF in this way, he argues, would also provide a capable Iraqi alternative to the Iran-backed Shia militias in the fight against ISIL.
The embedding option also appeals to Anbar’s tribal leaders, who have appealed for more direct U.S. help. Interviewed by phone last week, a senior Anbar tribal leader said the situation in Ramadi was “desperate,” and “approaching anarchy.” He confirmed that Anbar’s most important tribal officials had been able to escape Ramadi prior to the ISIL takeover on May 16. He reiterated complaints that the Iraqi government was “corrupt,” and “in the pocket of the Iranians.” This leader, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, remains skeptical that the additional trainers announced Tuesday by the Obama administration will make a significant difference. “It’s not only going to take more than that,” he said, “he really didn’t say what he was going to do to help us. The Sunni militias are the key to retaking Anbar, not the Iraqi military.”
A second option, favored by a growing number of Air Force officers, would be to escalate U.S. air strikes to cover urban areas held by ISIL, where they would risk inflicting higher civilian casualties. They argue that the current program of air strikes focused on ISIL’s frontline forces is failing to erode its military capacity. “We have to have an air campaign that is a thunderstorm, not a drizzle,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula told me, arguing that the U.S. could do far more to degrade ISIL’s capacity to control conquered territory without having to place U.S. boots on the ground. “Why is the road between Raqqa [in Syria] and Mosul, for example, still open?” Deptula said recently. “Why is electricity in [Raqaa and Mosul] not terminated?”
Deptula is quick to counter suggestions that U.S. airstrikes in urban areas controlled by ISIL would be inhumane. “This is one of the problems,” he said. “There’s been more attention to the avoidance of collateral damage and civilian casualties than there has been to the accomplishment of eliminating ISIL.” Deptula’s moral argument against the U.S. allowing ISIL to control large population centers resonate with many in the military.
Until recently the third option – of deploying U.S. ground forces – was not being seriously considered by senior military officers, let alone by White House policymakers. But since the fall of Ramadi, a growing number of influential serving and retired officers have begun pushing the proposal. One of the most influential among them is retired Colonel David Johnson, now a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation. Writing in the recent edition of Parameters, the influential journal of the U.S. Army War College, Johnson made a strong case for reintroducing U.S. ground combat troops to Iraq. He called the embedding option “a fallacy,” adding that “it strains credulity” to believe that the ISF, no matter how well trained, could ever be capable of taking on ISIL in urban areas such as Mosul.
“There is understandable reluctance to deploy U.S. ground forces to fight the Islamic State, given U.S. experiences since 2003,” Johnson wrote, using another name for ISIL. “However, the military objective against the Islamic State would not be nation-building or counterinsurgency, but rather removing the Islamic State from Iraq. The surest means of attaining this strategic objective is with the introduction of U.S. ground combat forces and the necessary sustainment packages to support them.”
When I asked Johnson about his article, he said that the administration needed to focus more clearly on means and ends. “The U.S. says it will defeat ISIL, and that’s an admirable goal,” he says, “but the goal simply doesn’t match up with the means we’re using. We need to get ISIL to fight for its life, for its survival, and embedding Americans with the ISF or expanding the air campaign just doesn’t get us there. We need to ask ourselves, is ISIL something we can tolerate? If it isn’t, then we need to defeat it and the sooner the better.”
Rather than limit the deployment debate on the basis of domestic political concerns, Johnson said, “The first thing we have to do is admit that we have a problem, and so far at least, the administration just hasn’t been able to admit that.” Johnson is adamant that embedding U.S. trainers or escalating air strikes won’t defeat ISIL.
“I think Ramadi shows that the Iraqi army just doesn’t exist,” he said. “So we’re going to provide them everything we need, and they’re going to pull the triggers? It just doesn’t make sense. Or we’re going to shut the electricity off in Mosul? I have a lot of respect for Dave Deptula, but it’s just not enough.”
For now, at least, the debate among serving and retired U.S. military officers appears to be ahead of the thinking in the White House. The Obama administration is leery of embedding U.S. troops in units flanked by Iranian-controlled Shia militias. It fears a public backlash from an air assault on urban areas, and is aware that the U.S. public has little appetite for further military adventures in the Middle East. But “those hesitations,” said a senior retired Army officer who served in Iraq, “are unlikely to survive another Ramadi debacle.” If ISIL captures another major town, he adds, the administration “will have a whole different set of options on the table — and deploying U.S. troops will be one of them.”