Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
The solution to the violence in Iraq is political, not military. But if a suitable government can be formed in Baghdad, the United States has to consider a wide range of military options. And to be effective, America’s troop presence in Iraq should exceed the hundreds of Special Operations advisers that President Obama has announced thus far.
Certainly, no one should expect the United States, after the huge military effort of the past dozen years, to redeploy main combat units to Iraq to try to counter the territorial advances of the extremist organization known as the Islamic State. Lesser but still significant American military assistance doesn’t make sense, either, absent a new government that incorporates Sunni and Kurdish politicians in meaningful power-sharing. Many Iraqi Sunnis now consider Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the “Shiite Saddam” and despise him even more than the Islamic State. They will not cooperate with Baghdad or with us — and the Obama administration is therefore right to focus first and foremost on Iraqi politics at present.
But what would be the right American contribution to an Iraqi-led military campaign against the Islamic State? Both drones and manned aircraft would probably be useful tools, but they might not be enough. Indeed, the history of trying to make a difference on the ground through pinpricks from the sky in wars such as this one is hardly encouraging. We tried that in Kosovo with several hundred aircraft in 1999, and achieved success only after increasing our air power threefold and hinting at a ground invasion two months later. Air power helped a great deal in Afghanistan in 2001, but only because we had an effective military ally in the Northern Alliance, which made it possible to isolate and then target the enemy from the air, as George Washington University political scientist Stephen Biddle has shown. We had manned and unmanned aircraft in Iraq from 2003 through 2006, yet we were losing the war there until the combination of the Sunni Awakening and the troop surge turned things around.
None of the breakthroughs in drone technology in the years since change the basic facts: It remains very hard to find and destroy an enemy of any significant size from the air absent good intelligence gained largely on the ground, and absent an ability to protect one’s allies on the ground from retribution by the enemy. U.S. troops do not need to attempt these functions again. But our military options need to help restore the Iraqi army’s ability to do so.
Fortunately, there are many options between limited airstrikes and all-out invasion. Even the total of all the options I consider plausible would not require more than 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at most — roughly the number that the United States originally planned to keep in Iraq after 2011 and roughly the number that the Obama administration intends to have in Afghanistan next year. That would involve real costs and risks to American troops, but the numbers would not be enormous.
One option is to deploy a significant number of Special Operations teams, well above and beyond the several hundred American advisers sent to Iraq over the past month. If the Islamic State has 10,000 dedicated fighters whom U.S. and Iraqi units must ultimately take off the battlefield, the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade suggest that we would need to conduct perhaps several thousand raids informed by good intelligence to counter the threat. Ideally, combined U.S. and Iraqi forces would strike hard early in any operation so that the enemy would not have time to adjust, carrying out many of these raids in the first couple of months. This would require having up to several dozen U.S. commando teams in Iraq or based in neighboring countries, totaling 1,000 to 5,000 troops, for a mission lasting perhaps several months at peak intensity.
A second option involves a type of military unit developed in recent years in Afghanistan called a Security Force Assistance Team. This is a group of 10 to 20 U.S. soldiers who embed with local forces at the small-unit level. Since the Iraqi army has in some cases dissolved, such advisory teams — which live with and deploy into the field alongside local troops — could be crucial to restoring the good tactics, unit cohesion, leadership confidence and tenacity that Iraqi units will require. Assuming that they might be deployed with most of Iraq’s army battalions, there could be a need for up to 100 such teams deploying for several months, and up to one or two years at most. Add logistical and intelligence support for these teams, as well as quick-response units that could help them if they got in trouble, and the numbers would again reach into the low thousands.
None of this would appeal to Americans weary of overseas engagement in general, the war on terror in particular and Iraq most of all. And a recent classified military assessment reported by the New York Times found that some Iraqi units are infiltrated by Sunni extremists or Iranian-backed Shiite personnel, making it difficult for U.S. forces to work with some of them, at least in the early going. But accepting some risk is necessary. The alternative may be to see a brutal group that seeks a caliphate over much of the Middle East — and that continues to recruit and warp the minds of thousands of fighters holding Western passports — entrenched in much of Iraq and Syria. That prospect is incompatible with U.S. national security interests.
Indeed, by indicating a willingness to do more now, as Iraqis consider alternative ruling coalitions, Washington may also help prod the Iraqis to choose a more unifying leader than Maliki. Substantial forms of military assistance may prove a significant inducement to pick a better leader.
Of course, for an American president who has been intent on ending two wars and getting U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan on his watch, returning to Iraq in the manner I sketch out here would be a bitter pill. But it would not be incompatible with Obama’s assertion that he has ended the main U.S. combat roles in both countries, since even if several thousand troops were to remain after Obama leaves the White House, those residual forces would be much less than a tenth of their peak sizes in either place.
Most of all, it is what may be needed to keep America safe. And that, of course, is the president’s main responsibility to the nation.
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