The self-anointed Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is trying to disrupt Coalition plans to move against it inside Iraq. However, hopes for major gains in the coming months by local Iraqi forces seem too optimistic. Ironically, US ground combat deployments potentially allowed in the Obama administration’s draft Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) might, in fact, reduce more meaningful regional Coalition participation. All this means a higher risk of US mission creep.
IS recently abandoned over 100 villages around Kobani and hard-fought gains around Aleppo, apparently to free up more fighters for use in Iraq. As noted earlier, with a vast perimeter to defend, IS leaders in Raqqa must make hard choices about where to place their strongest forces. IS cannot successfully defend its borders everywhere at once.
IS executed this pivot probably because of Indications about impending Iraqi offensive actions. General John Allen, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition, said on February 9 that Iraqi forces would “begin the ground offensive to take back Iraq” in the weeks ahead. Iraqi ambassador to the US Lukman Faily remarked on February 12 that this would be the decisive year for retaking major cities from IS, especially Mosul.
Acting on the old adage that the “best defense is a good offence,” IS conducted a string of limited attacks across Iraq over the last week meant to throw Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq off balance. Although its gains were not significant, IS appears to have achieved some success in rattling local forces.
Threat of Escalation at al-Asad
As I recently warned, stationing US personnel and assets at al-Asad Airbase in Iraq (mostly surrounded by IS-held territory) was very risky. The shield between 400 American trainers and IS forces is composed of Iraqi police and troops, both with an iffy track record against determined IS assaults. The fall of the nearby town of al-Baghdadi and a direct IS assault on al-Asad late last week were hardly surprising given the isolation of these somewhat weakly held locales.
The Iraqis so far have held al-Asad Airbase, but at great cost against a relatively small IS assault force. In the face of a much larger IS force all bets are off, with the very real possibility of a direct American face-off on the ground with IS. Even now, nearby IS forces could bombard al-Asad with weapons such as heavy mortars.
Officials in Washington must be concerned about potential American battle casualties or IS seizure of US prisoners at al-Asad. During the prolonged ordeal over Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, London postponed the deployment to Iraq of several hundred UK military trainers from an elite unit by several months until after the May 7 general elections. Clearly, this shift was to put off the possibility of a British nightmare similar to Jordan’s.
There is, of course, a solution to the US problem at al-Asad: commit US combat troops to defend the trainers. This, however, would ominously mirror the scenario in which South Vietnamese troops failed to protect US advisors and assets at an airbase and a barracks facility this month 50 years ago, which led to the deployment of the first US combat units to Vietnam on March 8, 1965.
AUMF Dangerously Broad
President Obama has sent to Congress a draft AUMF that any administration could drive a truck (or tank) through. The prohibition against “enduring offensive ground operations” is the main bone of contention.
Could a deployment less than “enduring” last as long as a year? “Defensive” ground operations might occur in response to most anything, not just troubling situations like the one at al-Asad. Triggers might include a retaliatory “defensive” response to an IS-inspired attack inside the United States, a US counterthrust to parry a successful IS ground attack against Iraqi forces or Kurds, and so on.
Obama personally seems resistant to substantial US military ground operations. In his February 11 letter to Congress, he referred to “limited” operations such as using elite forces for rescue missions, against the IS leadership, or for intelligence gathering. Yet, he defined IS as a “threat…to U.S. national security” and repeats his objective of IS’s ultimate “defeat.” He emphasized that “local forces” should do the military heavy lifting, but what if sufficient coalition ground forces don’t show up or Iraqi forces fail to shape up?
Would US Combat Troops Energize Allies?
Political hawks, as well as many serving and former military officers, continue to urge that US troops assume a far more prominent ground combat role than even that sought by the administration. Former General Anthony Zinni told CNN on February 13 that US combat troops robustly taking the field against IS would cause the coalition—especially regional allies—to “gather round” and send their own ground forces off to war.
Nonetheless, the opposite is more likely. Iraqi security forces and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, which are already somewhat squeamish about tackling IS full-bore, could seek to defer to any crack US combat troops that wade into the fray in any numbers. The same goes for many other regional allies. Nonetheless, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on February 6 that not only will Jordan commit ground troops, but “Saudi Arabia is on board, everybody’s on board.”
Last week, however, a Jordanian military source ruled out ground troops, aside from some special forces, and its foreign minister evaded a definitive answer earlier this month. Moreover, in consultations with politicians like Graham (relatively inexperienced in Middle East diplomacy), regional officials typically sound encouraging while avoiding firm guarantees. I recall an incident while serving with the State Department when a Clinton administration political appointee thought a GCC government had agreed to a major accord based on such chit-chat when such was not the case at all.
The Credibility of Iraqi Forces
Meanwhile, Baghdad is still stumbling in its efforts against IS. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to dispel the impression among Sunni Arabs that they remain a shunned, menaced minority have borne little fruit. The pleas for Iraqi government arms and support by Sunni Arab tribes in al-Anbar Governate still resisting IS largely go unanswered. Yet, these few tribes control more of al-Anbar than Iraqi Army garrisons. Back in Baghdad, a moderate Sunni Arab tribal leader who had complained to Human Rights Watch about anti-Sunni Arab crimes was murdered, along with his son, on February 14, apparently by Shi’a militiamen.
An ongoing wave of anti-Sunni Arab atrocities by Iraqi security forces greatly undermines the credibility of Baghdad’s outreach. Abadi launched a probe this month into the murder at the government’s Anbar Operations Command of two prominent members of a Sunni Arab tribe who’d been seized by Iraq soldiers and Shi’a militiamen. Shi’a militia are still needed most everywhere to fill out the ranks of the depleted Iraqi army, and the army too is mostly Shi’a.
Yesterday, Amnesty International announced that in areas “liberated” from IS, Shi’a militiamen continue executing, kidnapping, or expelling Sunni Arabs. And Shi’a militias are not the only culprits. Iraqi Kurdish forces have been active in evicting Sunni Arabs from liberated towns. And Yazidis fighting alongside the Kurds reportedly killed 21 Sunni Arabs late last month and engaged in widespread looting in retaliation for Yazidi dead found in areas taken back from IS around Sinjar.
Unless this mayhem linked to Iraqi or Kurdish forces can be brought under control, Iraqi military operations planned for this year will be bloody slugfests. Many Sunni Arabs are hardly thrilled about IS. But terrified of “liberation” Iraqi-style, they continue to fight alongside IS. Under such circumstances, hopes for major Iraqi successes seem delusional.