Military Experts Predict More Boots on the Ground in Iraq
Military experts do not believe the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria can be won from the air, and predict a growing ground presence.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if by Christmas we are not pushing about 5,000 GI’s in and around the region supporting all this,” said Michael V. Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency during the Bush administration.
“I believe in air power,” said Hayden, a retired Air Force general. But he cautions that overreliance on air power is a dangerous temptation that offers “instant gratification but limited commitment. … We need to be wary of a strategy that puts so much emphasis on air power.”
President Obama said Sept. 10 that ISIS represents an “immediate and significant threat” to the Middle East and an evolving threat to the United States, Europe and global security. The strategy to defeat ISIS is a combination of airstrikes and training and equipping Iraqi, Kurdish forces, and Syrian rebels to push back ISIS on the ground.
Counting on the combat skills of the Iraqis for the ground fight is risky, however, Hayden said Sept. 11 during a conference call hosted by the Atlantic Council. “I would double down on the Kurds,” he said. “Ever since the ISIS sweep through Western Iraq, I have difficulty imagining a future scenario in which the Iraqi army is going to re-conquer the territory that ISIS has taken.”
But the most concerning piece of the Obama strategy is assuming that a moderate Syrian opposition exists.
What this means is that, eventually, beating ISIS might require more U.S. troops. “The president did a sleight of hand with regards to no boots on the ground,” said Hayden. “We should stop using that phrase. We are going to have Americans on the ground in harm’s way, in a limited role.”
The president ordered 475 additional U.S. service members to be deployed to Iraq to advise the Iraqi military, conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights, and coordinate the activities of the U.S. military across Iraq. Within the next week, the U.S. military will have approximately 1,600 personnel on the ground.
The president’s plan is a step in the right direction, Hayden said, but it still has significant gaps and unanswered questions. The war on ISIS fits the counterinsurgency model in the sense that it requires the removal of insurgent leadership, the denial of a safe haven to the insurgents, and also changes in the conditions on the ground that created the insurgency in the first place. “Otherwise you have to kill people for ever,” said Hayden. “That third step is the most difficult. It remains to be seen what that is.”
Iraq and Syria “as we know them” are gone but that reality has still not been fully acknowledged, said Hayden.
He also cautioned that air operations by the U.S. Air Force and Navy could face challenges from air defenses on the ground. “The air environment here will not be nearly as permissive as the the air environment in Afghanistan.”
ISIS has Iraqi heavy weapons and man-portable air-defense missiles. “It’s not the free ride we assumed in Afghanistan. There are real risks,” Hayden said.
Francis Ricciardone, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Egypt, said the president’s plan is too focused on defeating and dismantling ISIS and short on how to deal with the larger problems that brought ISIS into existence. “Whether we can defeat ISIS in a short timeframe, there is strategic problem across the region,” he said during the call. “ISIS is a manifestation of a larger problem” that is the breakdown of the legal order that underpinned the stability of the region since the Ottoman Empire collapsed nearly a century ago.
“You could remove ISIS and still have weak failing states across the region,” said Ricciardone. “By suggesting ISIS is the central problem we exaggerate their power and standing and what they’re capable of.” By exaggerate their stature, he said, the United States unwittingly is helping their recruiting. ISIS taps into anti-U.S. sentiment to sign up recruits. Obama is exacerbating the problem by focusing too much on the potential threat of ISIS attacking the United States. “This follows in the U.S. habit of making the issue ‘about us,’” Ricciardone said. He is hopeful that Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can rally allies in the Middle East so the fight becomes more about the powers in the region, not about the United States.
Other experts take issue with the president describing the war on ISIS as comparable to the U.S. counterterrorism campaign in Yemen and Somalia. “The Yemen and Somalia situations are much more modest in scale,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “ISIS is not simply a terrorist organization but also an insurgent army. … So we need to set a scale of effort on our part far larger than anything that is being undertaken or contemplated in Yemen or Somalia.”
Haass also predicts an escalation of ground forces over time. “In Iraq, we already have a thousand-plus American advisors, and my guess is that with time that number will go up as we arm and train not just the Iraqi government but also the Kurds and various Sunni tribes,” he said. ‘You will need people on the ground to facilitate the work of American aircraft. My guess is that we're going to have not combat troops but a larger number of American forces in a supportive role in Iraq.”
Air power can degrade or weaken an adversary, and force it into a defensive position, said Haass. “What air power cannot do is take and hold territory. You need a ground component, and we are not in a position to provide that, even if special forces are introduced.”
The United States should try to bring ground troops from allied Arab countries into the fight, conceivably Saudi Arabia or Jordan or even Egypt, Haass said. “One has to go in those directions rather than pin a lot of hopes on building up a secular, moderate Syrian opposition force.”
The most glaring weakness in the president’s strategy, experts suggested, is that it does not make it clear what winning means. That is a sore subject within the U.S. military after fighting wars for 13 years without being able to declare victory.
A senior White House official speaking to reporters Sept. 10, said the definition of success is to “destruct, dismantle, and defeat the organization.” But he said it is going to take a long time. “It’s an entrenched group. They’ve been in Iraq since 2003.” To destroy ISIL, Iraqi and Syrian forces will have to reclaim seized territory.
What winning really means is a “debate we ought to have,” said Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who resigned in April as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“Can we do what we think we need to do to take away the will of the enemy?” he asked during a presentation to Army officers Sept. 10 at the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, in Fort Benning, Georgia.
“It's not about weapon systems, it's not about killing. It's about removing confidence in the enemy, removing the willingness to do what they think they need to do,” he said. “We've lost our idea of what winning means, he said. The missions for the last 10 years have been to defeat, destroy al-Qaida or the Taliban. Both are still in place, he noted. “In fact they've grown.”
Concerning ISIS, he added, “I think we have to come to grips with what it is that we are facing.” Like the fight against al-Qaida, he said, this is a “war of ideas.” There is a large number of “believers in their ideas” and the United States has to understand why that is the case. “There's a new Middle East that is being born in front of our eyes here.”