On June 10, U.S. officials announced the impending deployment of 450 additional military advisers to Iraq and the construction of a new base in al-Anbar Province. The addition of the troops to the more than 3,000 Americans already deployed in Iraq, all officially in training and advisory roles, comes on the heels of a string of victories by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) fighters on the ground and months of relentless Congressional criticism of President Barack Obama’s lack of a grand strategy back home. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement that the new advisers to Iraq “will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead, and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the prime minister.”
If that doesn’t sound like a bold new strategic vision, that’s because it isn’t. Obama’s critics are right to point out that this small influx of troops isn’t enough to turn the tide, but they’re wrong to suggest that staging an even more massive military intervention in Iraq and Syria would necessarily lead to a positive outcome. Yes, the president’s announcement doesn’t mean much — and that’s wonderful. The less grandiose our strategy against ISIL, the better.
To be fair, the new base and influx of troops isn’t all bad or poorly thought-out. Besides training the Iraqis, the new Americans will also be used to support coalition air strikes against the Islamic State. Our nearly 4,000 air strikes so far haven’t stopped ISIL, but they did play a significant role over the weekend in retaking Beiji, where Iraq’s largest oil refinery is located. This is arguably of more strategic value than Ramadi, which has few natural resources. So air strikes do have some potential, and it makes sense to accentuate them.
Another slight shift that comes with the new deployment is an emphasis on training Sunnis. The new base will be built about 15 miles from Ramadi, and will focus on training Sunnis who are understandably weary of the Shia-majority Iraqi army. So far, opposition to ISIL has appeared to be a Shia-dominated affair.
“The Sunnis want to be part of the fight,” an anonymous official told the New York Times. “This will help empower them, creating more recruits and more units to fight ISIL.”
All that said, listing the positive aspects of the troop infusion almost seems like damning with faint praise. The deployment of 450 new soldiers is less than what’s needed to train enough Iraqi soldiers, let alone take on ISIL. The math just doesn’t work. As University of Michigan historian Juan Cole points out, the American troops currently in Iraq have trained about 9,000 Iraqi soldiers in the past year. Increasing the number of American military trainers by 10 percent isn’t very likely to speed that pace up.
“At this rate it will take another two years for there to be as many newly-trained Iraqi troops as there are [Islamic State] fighters in Iraq,” Cole writes. “That is a pretty leisurely pace.”
What’s more, even if Iraqis were to somehow be trained at a faster pace, it’s still unclear whether the Iraqi army is capable of defeating ISIL. In fact, it’s unclear to what extent the Iraqi army exists at all. There is a difference, as MIT political scientist Barry Posen makes clear, between the Iraqi army loosing the will to fight, which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter claims is happening, and the Iraqi army not existing at all, which was suggested by the fall of Ramadi last month. If the Iraqi army was supposed to be composed of 14 divisions in 2014 and two were dissolved in Mosul last June, that should have left an ample number to assist with the defense of Ramadi. But only one was present.
“How is it that [Shia] militias must be called upon to liberate Ramadi?” Posen writes, “If the Iraqi army has evaporated, or perhaps more accurately deteriorated into a collection of local militias and palace guards, then the U.S. ‘re-training’ mission in Iraq is vastly more difficult than we have been led to believe.”
So, yes, Obama’s hawkish critics are right. This overhyped “shift” isn’t going to be enough to rebuild the Iraqi Army, let alone defeat ISIL. But there’s a deep, rich irony to their claims that the only solution to the defeat of the Islamic State are American “boots on the ground” — as if a massive ground invasion of Iraq in which we’re tasked with defeating an army and refereeing sectarian conflicts while simultaneously rebuilding republican institutions and vital infrastructure wouldn’t also be a repetition of failed strategy. ISIL simply isn’t a threat to America, to our existence or our sovereignty.
It’s obviously far too late to exercise judicious use of force in Iraq. But we can keep ourselves from compounding the problem by not asserting even more unnecessary force. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work with regional allies to hem ISIL in, isolate them, and stagnate their progress. We should. But the results of coming down even harder on an already destabilized region would only prove the famous Clausewitz dictum that war plans never survive first contact with the enemy. The unpredictability that Clausewitz emphasized should serve as a warning that American military might isn’t a skeleton key to be used to solve all the world’s problems. In fact, in recent history, it’s usually been the cause more than the solution.