National Security

New Iraq mission’s tough question: What does U.S. do if Islamic State survives?

This image made from AP video shows smoke rising from airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants near the Khazer checkpoint outside of the city of Irbil in northern Iraq, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP Photo via AP video)
This image made from AP video shows smoke rising from airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants near the Khazer checkpoint outside of the city of Irbil in northern Iraq, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP Photo via AP video) AP

As the United States announced its first airstrikes inside Iraq nearly three years after the military had furled its colors in Baghdad and declared the war complete, it sought to minimize fears that the latest effort could lead to “mission creep.”

The Pentagon used Twitter to announced the opening salvo of the U.S. re-involvement in Iraq, a strike on an Islamic State-operated 155mm howitzer and truck. It announced the second and third U.S. strikes later Friday in a five-sentence statement. No generals were made available to discuss the details of the actions because, the Pentagon said, the strikes were so small. Officials at the White House and the Pentagon alike stressed that the latest U.S. effort was limited, designed in part to deter the Islamic State. And, they said, strikes would only happen in instances where U.S. forces or personnel could be in jeopardy.

But the new U.S. Iraq engagement already had ballooned from the previous day, when President Barack Obama used more than 1,100 words of his 1,332-word speech to the nation to portray the effort as primarily a humanitarian mission to help prevent the genocide of trapped religious minorities forced to leave their homes by an Islamic State onslaught. Fewer than 200 words were devoted to the other mission, protecting American personnel.

Less than 12 hours after he finished speaking, the United States had already struck twice and a third bombing run was just a few hours away. The quick series of airstrikes raised fears among some of mission creep _ a term coined during the Vietnam War to describe a growing commitment of men and materiel after initial steps failed to produce the desired result.

But there were also a number of analysts who feared that the Obama administration wasn't being ambitious enough.

“The words ‘limited’ and ‘deterrence’ don’t belong in the same sentence. There has to be the threat of a disproportionate size,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study for War. “ISIS is not going to respond to limited strikes. They understand the West is reluctant to get involved.”

Senior military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to a reporter, conceded as much, with one explaining: “There is probably some gray area” in the latest U.S. effort in Iraq.

Part of the concern is based on the most recent “limited” mission the Obama administration undertook on behalf of a besieged group: Libya. In 2011, as residents of Benghazi, Libya, faced an imminent attack from forces loyal to the country’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, the U.S. announced it would intervene as part of a NATO mission to protect civilians from harm. The effort was billed as humanitarian, but it ended up toppling Gadhafi and leading to his death and empowering Islamist militias that now control much of the country. Libya is convulsed in a civil war between those Islamists and secular forces, the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed in an attack in Benghazi in 2012, and last month the United States evacuated its embassy in Tripoli, the country’s capital.

Under one of two presidential authorizations Obama announced Thursday night, the United States is providing humanitarian aid for tens of thousands of Yazidis _ the precise number is not known _ trapped in the Sinjar mountains by Islamic State forces. Under the second, the U.S. military is permitted to strike any Islamic State position or convoy that could potentially threaten American personnel or facilities.

The authorizations are classified and their precise details have not been made public. But the president himself made clear the authorization went beyond simply protecting the American consulate and military personnel in Irbil and appears to permit U.S. military action in at least three locations: in Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy sits, at Baghdad International Airport, where there are U.S. troops, and in Irbil, where the American presence includes 40 military advisers, hundreds of staff evacuated from the embassy in Baghdad, and a recently expanded CIA station at the airport.

What constitutes a potential threat is up to the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who does not have to clear a strike with any higher authority and who signed off on Friday’s strikes. Coincidentally, Austin was the last U.S. commander in Iraq.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. forces in northern Iraq in 2007 and 2008, said the limited U.S. mission mitigates against mission creep. Hertling said the president’s orders to Austin are clear; strike anything that could threaten U.S. citizens in Iraq.

“What hasn’t been defined is what is mission creep in a situation like this? The president has made it clear we are not going to put soldiers on the ground,” Hertling said.

On Friday, Austin authorized two F/A-18 jets to drop two 500-pound bombs on an artillery piece and the truck that towed it. The launcher, which sat near Irbil, could reach into the city, potentially threatening U.S. citizens there, senior military officials said.

Three hours later, drones armed with Hellfire missiles struck a mortar position and Islamic fighters who came to the site near Irbil. An hour later, four F/A-18s struck a convoy and another mortar position.

Because U.S. personnel are stationed in Irbil, “in those areas we will engage,” one of the senior U.S. military officials said.

Hertling noted that had Austin ordered aircraft to look for Islamic fighters approaching Irbil, that would portend of mission creep.

“But he did not do that,” Hertling said.

Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War disagreed, calling the first Friday strike “the opening of the Pandora’s box,” one that will not eliminate the Islamic State threat.

“Anyone who thinks ISIS is going to be deterred by two F-18s dropping two 500-pound bombs is simply ignorant of the demonstrated reality,” he said, referring to the Islamic State by the acronym for its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Once a traditional insurgency, the Islamic State has emerged into an adaptable quasi-military state, U.S. officials said, one armed with a rich arsenal obtained through its looting of military bases in cities like Mosul, Iraq’s second largest. Among the booty were advanced U.S. weapons, including possibly the 155mm artillery targeted Friday. Such equipment makes the Islamic State better armed and therefore more adaptable than the forces it is likely to confront.

“The group is sustaining its savage offensive with tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, Humvees mounted with weapons, machine guns, and an array of small arms,” a U.S. official told McClatchy. “With this firepower, ISIS obviously is emboldened by its heightened lethality.”

With such a large array of weapons, airstrikes alone will not defeat ISIS. If strikes will not eliminate the Islamic State, the United States will have to determine at what point it has cut the threat to an acceptable level. That’s where the risk of mission creep comes, analysts and officials said.

The best hope of fending off mission creep is that no one wants it to happen – not the war-weary Pentagon, the American public nor Congress. But given the U.S. unwillingness to send in ground troops to try to eliminate the Islamic State, there also is no hope of a clear resolution. At best, the latest attacks will give the Kurds enough of an advantage to fend off the Islamic State’s push toward Irbil, analysts said.

But it won’t end the threat the Islamic State poses in its push to create an Islamic caliphate that runs through Syria and northern Iraq. That result is probably not what anyone hopes, said Harmer.

“How does this end? It doesn’t,” he said.