WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama today outlined a careful commitment of US forces to Iraq, pledging to watch any “mission creep” as he sends an initial 300 special operations advisors to gauge the strengths, weaknesses and cohesiveness of Iraq’s security forces as they battle the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The U.S., Obama said during a White House news conference, would engage in “targeted and precise military action” while continuing to gather targeting information about the Sunni insurgents and protecting Americans in Iraq.
While nothing specific was said about what Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets are now covering Iraq and watching the progress and communications of ISIL, the Sunni militia rolling with surprising ease across much of Iraq. It seems pretty likely that a mix of Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks, NRO satellites and Navy Growlers (at least) are overhead as much as possible. (Id love to know what kind of communication discipline ISIL practices, given our long time in Iraq. Could that be a key reason for their series of successful surprise engagements?)
Initial reaction from the thinkerati was generally positive, with caveats, of course!
Anthony Cordesman, perhaps the wisest of the professionally wise, called Obama’s decision to send advisors “a key first step in dealing with the crisis.” He noted “It ensures that the United States as well as Iran” will be there. Perhaps most importantly in the medium term, he said, the advisors mean we can judge the Iraqi military’s “strengths and weaknesses, and act as a check on sectarian abuses” and make sure money and weapons go to “the units that will use it against ISIL and other extremist forces, rather than encourage sectarian attacks and civil war.”
Gordin Adams, a devout but rational Democrat who teaches at American University, offered general praise but raised a number of thorny issues. Obama, he said, “is trickling in a deeper US military commitment with no agreement on the Iraqi side that sectarian political games will end, in exchange.” And he opined that the “US advisors will not be able to quickly turn around an Iraqi military that has folded like a cheap suit.”
Rep. Buck McKeon, outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a reliable GOP critic of the administration, thundered softly that the president’s, “half-step won’t mitigate” the Iraq crisis. “The American people are losing confidence in the President’s stewardship of our national security. Our adversaries and allies lost confidence a while ago.” He urged the president, “for once — to make up his mind and commit to a comprehensive course of action in the region.” One is inclined to ask when was the last time anyone came up with a “comprehensive course of action” to do anything in the Middle East, but that would be just too snarky.
Gordon Adams also pointed to a thorny problem possessed by the president. He “is promising financial support to Iraq that he does not have. The $5 billion Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund he is counting on does not exist.” Of course, money can be always be approved by Congress at any time, but that would take a real emergency, one that poses a direct threat to the United States. Instead, Adams, says that any such fund “would only exist later this year, if Congress agrees to provide both the authorities and the money.”
After listening to a background briefing by “senior administration officials” for reporters held after the speech, I can tell you that the administration is extremely wary of Maliki remaining in office as Iraq battles ISIL They don’t want to be blamed for pushing him out, but they will breath a sigh of relief if he is. The level of US military commitment to Iraq will clearly depend a great deal on those 300 advisors going over to assess the Iraqi military. Perhaps some airstrikes will happen in the meantime but I think the US will try hard to funnel ISR to the Iraqis and hope that sustains them long enough for us to decide whether the current state known as Iraq is worth spending much more on.