Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.
Last Friday, on a dead news night and three days after the election, the White House announced another surge of U.S. troops to Iraq. Why now? Why so many? And are these enough to defeat the Islamic State?
The answers lie in large part in “ground truth,” the balance of battlefield conditions that ultimately determines success or failure. The Islamic State’s offensive over the summer gave it effective control of all of Sunni Iraq, including Anbar province and cities that run like a string of pearls from Syria down the Euphrates River.
The first tranche of U.S. advisers, along with a feeble series of airstrikes and reinforcement by the Kurdish pesh merga, were sufficient to force the Islamic State to “culminate” at the gates of Baghdad. Culmination is a military term that describes an offensive campaign that has reached its limit of advance. The aggressor can go no farther, but the defender lacks the power to reverse the attack and take back lost ground. It’s a contemporary, irregular-warfare version of what the Germans faced before Stalingrad in 1943 or Lee’s predicament after losing the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
Those examples notwithstanding, a culminating battle doesn’t always end in a reversal of the advantage. After culmination, the side that ultimately wins is the one that maintains control of the initiative and the clock. A culminated force left unchallenged, like the Islamic State thus far, begins to solidify its battlefield gains, potentially turning military advantage into a permanent political reality by adopting and co-opting people, resources and territory. That seems to be the Islamic State’s current strategy. It is a ruthless and diabolical force, reinforcing its victories with the execution of soldiers, uncooperative community leaders and any non-Sunni foolish enough not to convert.
By driving back defenders until they are exhausted, the culminating force gets the time to prepare the battlefield for the next stage. In this case, the Islamic State understands what’s coming and has had the leisure to disperse into cities and stockpile supplies for the inevitable counterattack. Control of the clock also means dominating the war of wills. As long as the Islamic State occupies Iraqi land and amplifies its successes through social media, young men will continue to be drawn to the perceived winner.
In late summer, the Joint Chiefs of Staff determined that the Iraqi Defense Forces had about nine brigades, each with about 2,500 troops, that were well-enough led, equipped and, (most importantly) psychologically fit to retake the offensive. The Pentagon generals who were colonels during the first “surge” in 2007 remembered how a last-minute stiffening of several wavering Iraqi brigades, through the hasty insertion of U.S. advisers and trainers, served to turn the tide in Anbar province and Baghdad. They contended that nine robust cadres of trainers and advisers, one for each of those competent brigades, could repeat that magic this year in the same places. That’s where President Obama got the number that he announced last week: nine adviser teams, each with up to about 150 trainers, plus communicators, security personnel and others, for a total of 1,500 troops.
But we still don’t have control of the clock. These American teams will be arriving late to the fight. It will take time to reach the Iraqi divisions they are to support. Training an Iraqi brigade to take the offensive is graduate-level work and requires more time, perhaps months, before these regenerated formations are remotely capable of confronting the still-growing Islamic State threat.
Will this commitment be enough? Maybe in September it would have been. But ground truth rears its ugly head. Besides consolidating its victories and capturing the imaginations of more impressionable young Islamic men, the Islamic State has dug deeply into Ramadi and Hit. These cities now must be retaken.
If nine Iraqi brigades with their U.S. advisers can’t do it next year, the clock will keep ticking. And Obama will have two options: Accept an Islamic State “caliphate” that occupies much of Iraq and Syria or add more U.S. forces to the opposition.
If the American people won’t accept further escalation, they will have to accept the caliphate. So the “nine-brigade gamble” might well shape the outline and balance of power in the Middle East for generations to come.