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The Middle East is in a downward spiral. More than 160,000 have died in Syria’s civil war, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, aka ISIS, has captured key Iraqi cities and is marching on Baghdad, and the security investments made by the U.S. over the past decade—like them or not—are being frittered away.
It is still possible to reverse the recent gains of ISIS, an outgrowth of what was once al Qaeda in Iraq. The group’s fighters number only in the thousands, and while well-armed, they lack the accoutrements of a serious military. But only the United States can provide the necessary military assistance for Baghdad to beat back our shared enemy.
Setting aside for the moment the question of whether this administration has the will to intervene again in Iraq, here are the components of a reasonable military package that can make a difference:
• Intelligence architecture. Iraq’s intel screens went blank after the U.S. military pulled out in 2011. Washington needs to restore Baghdad’s ability to access national, regional and local intelligence sources, enabling the Iraqi military to gain vital situational awareness.
• Planners and advisers. The Iraqi military needs planners to assist with the defense of Baghdad and the eventual counter-offensive to regain lost territory, as well as advisers down to division level where units are still viable.
• Counterterrorism. Special operations forces should be employed clandestinely to attack high value ISIS targets and leaders in Iraq and Syria.
• Air power. Air power alone cannot win a war, but it can significantly diminish enemy forces and, when used in coordination with ground forces, can exponentially increase the odds of success.
ISIS has made extraordinary progress in recent weeks in Iraq and controls large swaths of territory in northern Syria. But its forces are not impregnable and their tactics are not terribly complicated. ISIS has progressed via two main routes in Iraq, traveling during the day in columns. Its forces and staging areas are exposed targets—but the Iraqis have very limited air power.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and some of the necessary target development have already begun on the Iraq side; the U.S. needs to expand them to the Syria side of the Iraqi-Syrian border. We need to know more about who is moving, how they’re moving, who is helping, and how to stop them. This target information will assist air interdiction and non-American ground forces to counter ISIS.
The next necessary step is air interdiction of ISIS staging areas, supplies, sanctuaries and lines of communication. To be effective, this must address targets in both Iraq and Syria. Air interdiction alone will not achieve a victory, but it is a necessary component for follow-on ground operations. And hitting ISIS in Iraq without hitting it in Syria will allow the enemy to reserve its strength for another effort.
President Obama is reportedly considering providing elements of the Free Syrian Army with weaponry and other tools to begin to push back on both Iranian-backed Syrian forces and al Qaeda and Gulf-backed Islamist extremists. Remember, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the only force in Syria that has attacked ISIS. The Assad regime and ISIS enjoy a cordial entente and do not attack each other. Should President Obama choose to do so, air interdiction against targets inside Syria will be a boost that allows FSA moderates to gain ground they have lost over the past year.
After interdiction, the next step will be providing air cover. As the terrorists and Iraqi Security Forces face each other, the Iraqis are going to need close U.S. air support. That means coordination with ground forces, a task that was simpler with U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, but is now substantially more complex. Iraqis cannot facilitate our targeting.
Without air-ground controllers, this requires U.S. special forces to assist the locals. Far from the “boots on the ground” meme that has been so vilified in Washington, this is a job for which special forces have been trained. It is not combat, but it is the kind of partnership and facilitation that should have been left in place once the bulk of our troops left Iraq in 2011.
These are all arms-length measures, and they will likely stop the advance of ISIS on the ground in Iraq. Air power will also help to defend Baghdad and interdict ISIS, but at some point there will need to be a counteroffensive to take back land now held by the enemy.
The largely Shiite forces that make up the Iraqi army cannot win alone, especially as Sunni extremists join forces with ISIS. They must turn to Kurdish Peshmerga troops for assistance. This will not be an easy choice for the Kurdish leadership. But the Kurdistan Regional Government is playing with fire if it believes that ISIS and its ilk are the road to a more stable Middle East. A fragmented Iraq based on terrorist rule will not enable continuity of oil supplies or security for Kurdish population centers.
The Syrians and the Iraqis have made their own beds—so why stick our noses in now? The answer is that al Qaeda, ISIS and others will not stop at Iraq and Syria. Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others will be next.
Think subcontracting the job to Iran is the right call? Surely, no one wishes a Middle East managed by the ayatollahs in Tehran. Don’t care? Remember the admonition of the 9/11 Commission: “The most important failure was one of imagination.” Imagine what controlling vast areas of the Middle East will do for extremists of all stripes.
Yes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed dismally to include Sunnis in Iraq’s government, military and economy—with disastrous effects. Nonetheless, President Obama’s formulation—that the U.S. will provide assistance only if Mr. Maliki makes necessary reforms—assumes that we have some leverage over Baghdad. To the contrary, Washington will earn far more leverage if it is willing to step in and provide the kind of support that should have been there in the years after victory. Only then will Mr. Obama have the influence and the trust to bring together Iraqis to reconstitute a foundation that can withstand the predations of ISIS, Iran and others.
Are these prescriptions a guarantee of victory? No. Are Iraqis and Syrians and all their neighbors worthy of another American investment? That’s not the right question. This is not just about them. This is about the security of the U.S., our allies and our vital interests. If we do nothing—if our imagination fails us once again—it is the American people who again will pay a terrible price. Weighed against the limited requirements to help Iraqis and Syrians fight for themselves, that is well worth the effort.
Gen. Keane, a retired four-star general and former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, is the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War.
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