As President Obama was weighing how to halt Islamic State advances in Iraq, some of the strongest resistance to boosting U.S. involvement came from a surprising place: a war-weary military that has grown increasingly skeptical that force can prevail in a conflict fueled by political and religious grievances.
Top military officials, who have typically argued for more combat power to overcome battlefield setbacks over the past decade, emerged in recent White House debates as consistent voices of caution in Iraq. Their shift reflects the paucity of good options and a reluctance to suffer more combat deaths in a war in which America’s political leaders are far from committed and Iraqis have shown limited will to fight.
“After the past 12 years in the Middle East, there is a real focus by senior military leaders on understanding what the endgame is,” said a military official, “and asking the question, ‘To what end are we doing this?’ ”
The military’s reluctance belies a prevalent narrative in Washington of a cautious president holding back his aggressive generals. The Pentagon’s position was most evident in the White House debates after the surprising retreat of Iraqi army and police in Ramadi last month.
In the days that followed, Obama assembled his national security team to fix a strategy that appeared to be foundering.
Obama’s top generals presented a range of options, including one dubbed “higher risk” that would have embedded U.S. advisers in Iraqi combat units to direct airstrikes from U.S. fighter jets. The plan also would have employed Apache attack helicopters, which are lethal in urban combat but vulnerable to enemy ground fire.
The higher-risk option represented a major change in the White House’s strategy, which puts a heavy burden on the Iraqis to take the lead in the fight against Islamic State militants and keeps Americans away from the front lines.
Some senior State Department officials argued that the front-line American spotters and attack helicopters would provide critical help to Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whom the administration strongly backs. Without some quick battlefield victories, these officials argued, Abadi would be under heavy pressure to rely more on Shiite Iran, which has cast itself as Iraq’s only effective partner in a largely sectarian war with the Sunni-
dominated Islamic State.
But the president’s top military commanders argued against a change in strategy that would reduce the onus on Iraqi forces and pull U.S. troops deeper into the war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, like other military officials doubted that the gains from using embedded advisers and attack helicopters were worth the possible cost in American blood, said several U.S. officials familiar with his position.
Instead, he counseled patience, maintaining that the U.S.-led air campaign was weakening the Islamic State and that a force of Sunni tribal fighters would need to be trained and armed to hold the battlefield gains.
Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and developed the higher-risk option, conceded that the ground spotters and helicopters could make U.S. military operations more lethal, but he also said they weren’t needed in Iraq right now, U.S. officials said.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter similarly argued that ground spotters weren’t essential to bolster an air campaign that was “going well,” said a senior defense official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The president ultimately decided to send about 450 American advisers to a secure military base outside the Islamic State-
controlled city of Ramadi. The advisers will meet with Sunni sheiks in the area in an effort to mobilize and potentially train thousands of tribal fighters. They will also provide advice and intelligence to the Iraqi headquarters overseeing the fight for Ramadi. But they will not accompany Iraqi troops on combat missions, as some State Department officials argued was essential if the Iraqis were going to retake Ramadi in the coming weeks.
The State Department has “a more optimistic view of the opportunities there than the military does,” a U.S. official said.
A senior Pentagon official described the military’s objections to the higher-risk options in starker terms: “We have become very sensitized to the idea that we don’t want to risk lives and limbs if there isn’t a high probability of a payoff,” said the official. “Our calculus is different.”
Obama didn’t foreclose riskier options that would push U.S. advisers closer to the front lines and into combat, senior U.S. officials said. If conditions worsened, the president indicated, he would be open to using ground spotters or attack helicopters. The president also said that he would revisit the riskier courses if they were needed to help Iraqi forces achieve a major breakthrough, such as a victory in the fight to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.
One big challenge with embedding combat advisers is finding front-line Iraqi units that U.S. military commanders trust enough to keep the Americans relatively safe, a senior military official in Iraq said.
The military’s unwillingness to press for more resources could undercut calls from some Republican presidential candidates, such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who have pressed for sending more U.S. troops to fight Islamic State militants.
The military’s reluctance also represents a shift in mind-set for a force that, while not monolithic in opinion, has in recent years pressed for a more aggressive military response in the wake of battlefield setbacks.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, for instance, in 2009 said he needed as many as 40,000 new troops to push back the Taliban and train Afghan forces. After weeks of contentious debate, Obama agreed to send 30,000 troops, but in a sign of his unease with the military’s ambitious plans, the president put a firm time limit on how long they could stay.
“In the Afghan surge, the military believed the mission could be accomplished and wanted more forces to buy down risk,” said Michele Flournoy, a former top official in the Pentagon and chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security.
Today in Iraq, expectations are far lower and political support for the mission among lawmakers, the White House and the American people is far more tenuous. The goal in Iraq, Flournoy said, “is to retake lost territory.”
The military’s 12 years of experience in Iraq, meanwhile, have imbued it with an abiding wariness of being drawn too deeply into the country’s internal ethnic and sectarian wars. That instinct is shared by the team of senior military advisers Obama has assembled. “Every single one of these guys has signed too many letters to too many parents,” said Maren Leed, a former senior adviser to the Army chief of staff in the Pentagon who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’ve had their hearts broken and watched a lot of others get their hearts broken.”
Austin, who oversaw all U.S. troops in Iraq prior to the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011, pressed for keeping as many as 17,000 American troops in the country to train and advise Iraqi forces. The Obama administration whittled that number down to fewer than 5,000 troops, but it couldn’t reach an agreement with the Iraqi government that would allow the troops to stay.
What followed was a slow deterioration and collapse of the Iraqi and Army and police forces that U.S. commanders had built at tremendous cost.
Dempsey lost 133 troops when he commanded U.S. troops in Baghdad in 2003-2004. He returned to the country one year later to command the Iraqi army and police training effort from 2005 to 2007. Like many U.S. commanders, he hoped that the Iraqi forces, though far from perfect, could survive on their own after U.S. troops left in 2011.
“What did the U.S. military learn from the last decade of support to the Iraqi army?” asked Emma Sky, author of “The Unraveling,” who spent four years in Iraq as a senior adviser to the U.S. military. “We can give the Iraqi army lots of equipment and training, but we cannot address the psychology and morale of the force and its willingness to fight.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.