The Cost of Going Back to Iraq

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Though not outwardly acknowledging that the current U.S.-led coalition using heavy air power to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria has proven inadequate for the task, President Obama and Pentagon officials raised the stakes this past week by authorizing the U.S. military to send 1500 additional personnel to Iraq. The new 1500 troops would roughly double the number of American military personnel now in Iraq.

Their mission: to quickly train additional brigades of Iraqi troops and Peshmerga units for what may be a long and difficult fight against ISIS, also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to the Pentagon, U.S. troops will train an additional 12 brigades—instructing those units in the use of mostly-American-made equipment, instilling discipline, and preparing the newly minted fighters for direct combat on the ground.

The White House and the Pentagon were consistent in their position that the new troop deployments would be placed neither in combat roles, nor in forward positions that might put them in harm’s way. As a parallel task the new American units would be establishing several training facilities for the preparation of new Iraqi recruits.

The President said he would ask Congress to authorize $5.6 billion in additional military funds to pay for the new deployments, and to fund the cost of the air campaign against ISIS. The White House and the Pentagon made the announcements on Friday, a few hours after the President met with Congressional leaders over lunch. Of the requested money, at least $1.6 billion will be set aside for the “Iraq Train and Equip Fun,” according to the White House.

The current air campaign has included the heavy use of targeted strikes by bombers and jet fighters, as well as cruise missiles and drones. Though the air campaign has helped to stall much of the rapid advance of ISIS, the radical militants have proven more difficult to dislodge from many areas than the previous estimates of the Pentagon and the White House.

ISIS formed in the chaotic environment of the long, bloody Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year. Merging fighters and units once loyal to Saddam Hussein with a variety of al Qaeda groups, along with some anti-Assad rebels, ISIS organized itself into a working army. In spring of this year, ISIS swept through northern Syria and across northern Iraq, moving quickly and bringing terror with it.

In front of the advance of ISIS, the Iraqi army collapsed—abandoning equipment and weapons. ISIS was able to quickly advance to within 35 miles of Baghdad, and it was also able to capture scores of cities and towns once the scenes of intense, costly battles where Americans lost their lives. ISIS also captured oil facilities, seized banks and public offices, imposed laws which reflected a radical interpretation of Islamic law, and murdered thousands of civilians. ISIS’s advance gave the militants control of areas as far north as the Syrian and Iraqi borders with Turkey, and as far west as the border checkpoints at Jordan.

ISIS has said it seeks the establishment of a caliphate, and it does not recognize internationally agreed upon political borders.

Intense fighting has raged along parts of northern Syria at the Turkish border for many weeks, as ISIS seeks to consolidate control of areas once left under the auspices of Kurds and other ethnic minorities. The fight for control of the border town of Kobani has been particularly violent, as Kurdish fighters attempt to resist a continuing onslaught of heavily-armed ISIS militants. On some occasions the fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS units has come to within a few hundred yards of the border fence which separates Syria from Turkey. The U.S. was reluctant to use air power in the fight for Kobani, but eventually did use some targeted air strikes starting about ten days ago. The air strikes were credited with helping to stall ISIS’ advance, but ISIS still controls many sections of Kobani.

Many military analysts, including ex-military commanders and officers, question whether the Iraqi army can be adequately-trained for the task of confronting ISIS, even after months or years of training by U.S. forces. Others are concerned over what they see as mission-creep: a few hundred Americans are sent in to a combat situation, followed inevitably by a few hundred more, until eventually the U.S. and its allies are committed to a full-scale war. Military analysts and some in Washington point to two clear examples: the long American involvement in Vietnam, which began in an “advisory” capacity but which ultimately took the lives of 58,000 U.S. forces; and the current plan to train the Iraqi army, an almost exact replay of the scenario the U.S. faced as it began its withdrawal from the last Iraq war in 2011. The question is whether the U.S.-led training this time around would be sufficient for what is now a Herculean task.

The air campaign has succeeded in destroying more than 200 armed vehicles once part of ISIS ground operations, and some targeted air strikes have also taken out tanks, artillery positions, weapons caches, and even some suspected key militant commanders. Some air strikes on the first night of the Syrian phase of the operation were targeted at members of the Korasan Group—largely unknown in the West but known to some in the intelligence community as perhaps more dangerous than ISIS. And just this past week more strikes were focused on Korason members, in particular a highly-skilled French bomb-maker who intelligence officials in the U.S. believe had developed and tested a powerful explosive which could be embedded in a working laptop computer. That same bomb-maker was also believed to have developed type of explosive which could be used by soaking clothing in flammable materials. Communications between some Korasan members seem to have indicated that the group was preparing to use the laptop device to blow-up a civilian airliner or other high-profile target.

As of last week, the U.S. and its coalition partners had carried out more than 400 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and 325 air strikes against ISIS and Korasan positions in Syria.

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