The proposed winter offensive operations against ISIS, in Mosul, will once again raise the issue of the nature of U.S. military support to the Iraqi Army. Specifically, discussions about the involvement of U.S. troops in combat operations against the Islamic State will illustrate the civil-military dynamic in the American government’s attempt to grapple with the challenge of Iraq’s partial collapse. Since the beginning of official U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS, the discussion about strategy has spilled over into the public sphere.
The conversation on the features of U.S. military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq has always revolved around the type of asymmetric warfare that has characterized American 21st century military intervention and the prosecution of the War on Terror. From the beginning, air power would be a dominant tool in the anti-ISIS arsenal and American sea power would supplement the air campaign. Not only were ground forces conspicuously absent from the Obama White House’s proposal for countering the Islamic State, but it was explicitly stated by the executive that there would be “no boots on the ground”, even though American military advisors would be an integral part of rebuilding the Iraqi Army to fight ISIS.
While the Administration’s position has been articulated as terrestrial, all-terrain footwear averse, the U.S. Military has been vocal about limited ground force options not being off the table. This has been presented in many ways, most notably by Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was relaying the recommendations of U.S.Central Command (CENTCOM). Gen. Dempsey’s comments were public, and some commentators believe that the presentation of the option, in a prominent position in his opening statement before Congress, was calculated to send a strong signal as to the U.S. military’s active stance on the issue.
Since September, the discussion concerning ground troops has remained background noise to the extensive bombing campaign (as of the writing of this blog, numbering more than 660 air strikes) taking place in Iraq. The executive’s political objectives remain opaque to most foreign policy analysts, while former generals, secretaries of defense, and secretaries of state call for more extensive U.S. involvement in the campaign against ISIS. With one of the largest National Security Council complexes in U.S. history, the Obama administration has drawn the ire of some observers, like David Rothkopf, who suggest that the insular nature of national security policy has isolated the defense bureaucracy. This has narrowed real decision making processes, relegating the institutions that have been well-tuned over the course of the past-decades to the demands of limited warfare (creating a frugal culture with regards to political and monetary capital), to positions of federal think tanks for the National Security Council.
Interestingly, the military’s plan for the introduction of U.S. ground forces to the fight against ISIS bucks the 20th century stereotype of a military preoccupied with maintaining a preponderance of power. The operational outline is essentially a classic deployment of the “Afghan model”, which has its origins in civilian urging to trim the force projection required to carry out the War on Terror. It’s been an effective tool with regards to eliminating opposing forces, not only in its eponymous conflict, but also in Libya.
The real issue here might be that Huntington’s objective model of the civil-military divide has revealed the root problems of the current war in Iraq, which are all political. The Obama Administration is reluctant to use the most effective and expedient tool for the job, because there is little confidence in the fact that, after the job is done, there will be anything left to maintain the work. Unsurprisingly, the administration is not enthusiastic about the prospect of re-deploying combat troops to Iraq, which will be a move that reeks of failure in one of the White House’s cornerstones in its narrative of foreign policy success.
What are the options then? According to the former Iraqi defense minister Abdul Qader Obeidi, the Iraqi army is almost completely incapable of taking care of its medical needs, and might be ill prepared to fight the Islamic State, a far more capable foe than the loose militias and terrorist squads it has fought in the past, without some type of real fire support. The military is prepared to do its job. The Obama White House must begin to genuinely articulate why its plan is so long-term, in order to effectively address its critics, and leave a workable policy legacy for the next administration. This will also put the military’s viewpoint in the proper perspective.