The Obama administration’s war on the Islamic State is quickly approaching its first birthday, and things don’t seem to be going especially well. The strategy President Obama laid out back in September had two key components for taking on ISIS militarily: The U.S. would provide air power and conduct “a systematic campaign of airstrikes,” and the Iraqi military (with “training” and “support” from U.S. military personnel) would “go on offense” against the terrorist state’s forces.
We’ve made good on our part of the plan: We've dropped a lot of bombs and flown a lot of drone missions. But the Iraqi army has remained stubbornly ineffective, even with hundreds of U.S. troops training and arming them. Last month they were driven out of Ramadi by a numerically inferior Islamic State force without putting up too much resistance. After the city fell, Defense Secretary Ash Carter remarked that “what apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.”
So things don’t seem to be going according to plan. But the White House apparently isn’t quite ready to acknowledge that perhaps a strategic reassessment might be in order. Yesterday the administration announced that some 500 more American military personnel will be sent to Iraq to assist with training and support of the Iraqi army. They’re going to supplement the 3,000 or so military personnel already on the ground there. According to the White House’s official statement: “These new advisors 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.”
That’s all well and good, but wasn’t that the goal of the original contingent of “advisers” we deployed to Iraq? According to the New York Times, the focus for this new group of trainers will be on “training Sunni fighters within the Iraqi Army,” and there will be an effort made to “advise and assist Iraqi security forces and to engage and reach out to Sunni tribes in Anbar.” But as the Guardian points out, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough Americans on the ground to train the Sunnis – it’s that there just aren’t enough Sunnis willing to join the largely Shiite Iraqi army, something Obama himself has acknowledged:
It was additionally unclear how increasing the number of US soldiers available to train Iraqi fighters would overcome a central problem to the training effort most recently spelled out on Monday by Obama: a lack of recruits to train.
“We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits,” Obama said at the close of a G7 summit in Germany. “It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.”
Hashimi said that only 1,100 Sunnis had taken part in the US training programme, and none of them have graduated from it. In total, about 9,500 fighters have completed the training.
More broadly speaking, what confidence do we have that throwing a few hundred more U.S. training personnel into the mix will have any more success at turning around the Iraqi military? We spent years during the Bush administration training up the Iraqi security forces to the point that it at least resembled a competent fighting force. But in the years between the previous U.S. occupation and the current Iraq adventure, the Iraqi army dissolved into a morass of corruption or lethargy, forcing the returning U.S. military personnel to start basically from scratch. That was the end product of years of work with tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground.
Now we’re trying to repeat that process on a much smaller timetable with far fewer resources, and hope that it churns out a more capable Iraqi fighting force. “The current U.S. strategy for preserving an independent and unified Iraq state and expelling ISIS without committing U.S. ground troops assumes the existence of a cohesive and battle-ready Iraqi military that, for the moment, doesn’t exist,” Slate’s Joshua Keating wrote last month. “Not surprisingly, the strategy doesn’t seem to be working.”
So we’re sending yet another complement of trainers in as part of what Kevin Drum calls Obama’s “bold new decade-old strategy in Iraq.” And, of course, as you send more and more American personnel into the active war zone, the danger that one of them will get hurt or killed goes up. The Americans aren’t taking part in combat operations, but the expansion “would expose American forces to greater risk of being drawn into direct combat with Islamic State forces that already control territory around likely sites for a planned U.S. training base,” as the Wall Street Journal reports.
There’s obviously no easy solution for what to do about Iraq and ISIS, but right now it feels like the White House is slowly succumbing to mission creep more as a way to ease political pressure than anything else. And so as we approach the second year of this (still unauthorized) conflict, we don't have a whole lot to show for it except a few more boots on the ground.