President Barack Obama’s decision Wednesday to send more U.S. military personnel to Iraq is a mid-course adjustment to an effort that has failed to blunt the Islamic State’s onslaught.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the move does not represent a new U.S. strategy, while experts said they harbor doubts that the approach will succeed in vanquishing the Islamic State.
“This is a tactical tweak to the strategy,” said Douglas Ollivant, a retired Army officer and former White House adviser on Iraq. “Nothing is changing.”
In announcing the dispatch of 450 more advisers only days after asserting that the Islamic State was on the defensive, administration officials acknowledged that the Islamic State has moved faster to consolidate its positions than Baghdad and the United State have to reverse the extremists’ advances.
“We need to make sure that in terms of where our forces are and how we’re able to equip Iraqi forces, that we can be more nimble, because clearly this is a very nimble enemy,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “Part of the problem we’re trying to solve . . . is: how can we move faster to provide advice, assistance, and equipment to Iraqi forces?”
The new advisers will be stationed at Taqaddum, an Iraqi base near the city of Habbaniya, in eastern Anbar, the country’s largest province, most of which is under Islamic State control. It will supplement training at another Anbar location, al Asad air base.
“These new advisers will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
The United States also will accelerate the delivery of arms and other military equipment to Baghdad for distribution to Iraqi forces, including the militia of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and fighters from the Sunni tribes that dominate Anbar province, the White House said.
The decision to focus the stepped up U.S. effort on Anbar underscored that Obama is embracing the Iraqi goal of regaining the provincial capital, Ramadi – overrun by the Islamic State last month in the gravest setback suffered by Baghdad this year – and Anbar, before going for the northern city of Mosul, which fell in June 2014.
Ramadi – whose capture gave the Islamic State control of all of Anbar’s major urban centers but was initially dismissed by the U.S. military as unimportant – is only about 80 miles west of Baghdad.
The White House announcement, however, made clear that Obama rejected demands for a new approach by critics, including senior members of Congress, who’ve demanded that U.S. troops trained in directing airstrikes be embedded with Iraqi forces.
“U.S. troops will not serve in a combat role,” said Earnest, who added that Obama has not ruled out a future deployment of so-called Joint Terminal Air Controllers.
Moreover, Obama spurred demands by some lawmakers to send military hardware directly to Sunni fighters in Anbar and the Kurds, bypassing the Shiite-dominated government, which has been reluctant to arm the Sunnis and is accused by the Kurds of withholding badly needed weapons.
Even so, Obama’s decision to boost the U.S. military presence is tantamount to an admission that his strategy has done little to reverse the Islamic State’s conquest of most of Anbar – which encompasses about one-fifth of the country – and vast areas of northern Iraq despite nearly a year of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The Obama administration’s strategy also has suffered from the failure of the Shiite-dominated government to assuage angry complaints by Anbari Sunnis that they’ve long been politically marginalized by the Shiite-dominated government.
The government also has refused to recruit and arm large numbers of Sunni tribal fighters – viewed by many Shiite leaders as pro-Islamic State sympathizers - a problem that the establishment of the new training base at Taqaddum appears aimed at correcting.
Positioning U.S. military trainers and U.S. troops who will protect them at the base would create a safe zone to which it would be easier to draw local Sunni fighters who are unwilling to risk traveling to the other training site at al Asad.
“Sunni tribes are reluctant to leave their lands,” said Ollivant. “You have to go to them.”
“We are hoping to get more of those Sunni tribes invested in the fight against ISIL, to have a greater recruiting base for the effort,” said Rhodes, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the extremists, who are also known as ISIS. “That will be key to not just getting a manpower issue resolved, but frankly making sure that the people who have the most at stake in this part of Iraq are fully invested.”
Some experts, however, harbor grave doubts that the approach will succeed. Too much time has been wasted, they said, and many Sunni tribes, feeling abandoned by Baghdad and the United States, have been aligning with the Islamic State, an exclusively Sunni organization that despises Shiites as apostates.
“There is no meaningful, realizable Sunni tribal outreach,” said a former U.S. military commander who helped recruit Anbari Sunnis to fight the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaida in Iraq, during the 2003-11 U.S. occupation. “There has been a significant withdrawal of support by the Sunnis we have successfully used in the past.”
Many Sunnis also hate the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that Baghdad deployed to fight the Islamic State after the fall of Mosul triggered the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi began pressing Obama to send additional U.S. trainers before Ramadi fell the weekend of May 15-17. It was only after its capture that the president agreed to Abadi’s request.
There are currently 3,100 U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. personnel were dispatched last year as part of an Obama administration effort to crush the Islamic State after the extremists, based in neighboring civil war-ravaged Syria, overran Mosul and charged to the doorstep of Baghdad in a lightening offensive that triggered the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army.
As part of his strategy to prevent the collapse of Iraq, Obama also organized the international coalition that has participated in U.S.-led airstrikes as well as sent military trainers and weapons to help rebuild Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga.
The strategy called for Baghdad to recruit Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar in a bid to reproduce the Awakening movement that during the U.S. occupation helped U.S. forces beat back al Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate.
Despite Abadi’s efforts to reach out to the Anbar Sunnis, his Shiite-dominated government, in which leaders of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias hold senior posts, has resisted arming them. The parliament also has failed to pass legislation to create a national guard into which they’d be recruited.
While the Kurds have pushed the Islamic State back from their region, Iraqi security forces – joined by Iranian-backed Shiite militias – have failed to wrest Anbar away from the Islamic State, which declared the province part of a “caliphate” that also includes largest swaths of Syria.