(Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Why the U.S. might need boots on the ground in Iraq

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Why would Gen. Martin Dempsey, the level-headed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is not known for challenging presidential authority, tell Congress that U.S. military personnel might have to deploy with Iraqi units for the campaign against the Islamic State to succeed? Dempsey’s statement seemed to fly in the face of President Obama’s pledge that U.S. forces would not have a combat role in Iraq. Is this a new crisis in American civil-military relations? Are we on a slippery slope to another major involvement in a civil war in Iraq?

In fact, there is no crisis and no slippery slope. When one examines the battlefield dynamics involved in liberating territories controlled by a group like the Islamic State, Dempsey’s counsel makes eminent sense — as a way to help empower Iraq’s army to take back the Sunni Arab heartland. Whatever Obama decides now, the kind of approach discussed by Dempsey may be needed down the road and should not be ruled out.

Since the Iraqi army melted away in the face of Islamic State onslaughts this spring, it would be overly optimistic to believe that a simple change of central government in Baghdad will rejuvenate it. Years of betrayal and cronyism by the government of Nouri al-Maliki created much acrimony and mistrust. To address this problem, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with the support of Obama, has proposed a national guard force to complement the main army. It will be recruited, trained and employed locally — allowing Iraqis to fight for their own homeland on a province-by-province basis.

This is a good idea. It is also a daunting proposition. At present, an Iraqi national guard does not even exist, yet it will be a linchpin of the new strategy. While it is being built, the Islamic State may become nearly as entrenched in the nation as al-Qaeda in Iraq, its precursor, was in 2007. A hard fight lies ahead.

To succeed, U.S. advisers will probably have to help these new national guard units, as well as reconstituted regular army units, far beyond calling in airstrikes. Iraqis need to regain their unit cohesion, their political commitment to the state and their trust in each other. U.S. advisers, many of whom know Iraqis well from shared experiences over the past decade, are well-placed to help. Among other daunting challenges, Shiite leaders in Baghdad will have to persuade themselves that the new Sunni formations in the guard do not threaten the central government, and they must resource them adequately to take the fight to the Islamic State.

American mentors, deployed as teams of perhaps 12 to 15 with Iraqi army and guard units in the field, will also need to advise Iraqis on the planning and execution of the difficult battles ahead. These U.S. advisers do not need to do the fighting, but they will have to walk the key neighborhoods of Iraqi’s major Sunni cities, study the intelligence and live with the units they are helping. Up to several thousand Americans could be needed for this purpose.

Integrated campaigns against what Gen. David Petraeus used to call “industrial-scale insurgencies” are complex and difficult. They involve repeated raids against high-value targets, leadership sites, weapons caches, car bomb factories and the like, along with sophisticated intelligence work to identify key operational and financing nodes in the enemy’s organization. At some point, these campaigns also require taking down enemy strongholds city by city and neighborhood by neighborhood. Every major insurgent stronghold will have to be cleared, requiring the cordoning off of neighborhoods, searching for roadside bombs and booby traps, deploying proper numbers of well-prepared troops, preparing reaction forces (and medevac teams) to handle any ambushes and having holding forces ready to follow so that the enemy cannot return after the operation. Putting this all together in a plan that can be executed smoothly and quickly enough that insurgents do not have time to find new hiding places after being driven from their strongholds is a challenge even for U.S. forces.

The likely alternative is to risk having the Iraqi army attempt counterinsurgency via artillery barrage, “barrel bombs,” strafing of neighborhoods friendly to extremists and all the other atrocious tactics that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces employ in Syria. In addition to being inhumane, such tactics often prolong these types of wars or fail altogether. Nor can U.S. or Iraqi airpower get the job done on its own. We had far more airpower in Iraq from 2004 to 2006 than we do in the area now yet were losing the war.

Ideally, we would deploy these kinds of advisory teams, if Iraqis request them, sooner rather than later — before the Islamic State digs in even deeper, before it has time to plot further atrocities in Iraq, Syria and beyond, before many more Iraqi innocents die at the hands of these brutal extremists. Indeed, there is a strong case for also deploying teams of U.S. Special Operations forces to help Iraqi commandos with an intense sequence of raids in the opening weeks of any such campaign, though that may be a bridge too far in terms of U.S. politics. The key point is this: Whatever we do and say now, we need to leave the door open to deploying combat advisers in the months to come. There may simply be no other way to get the job done.