Back to Iraq? No really, these troops are just here to advise

Friday 26/06/2015
American military trainer instructs an Iraqi soldier

Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East: “Training” is a new term for “escalation” and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for “Vietnam”.

The terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire”, however, still mean what they have always meant.

In 2011, US President Barack Obama closed out the United States’ eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.

Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidis from the Islamic State (ISIS) into a bombing campaign. A tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of US military personnel in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training — or whipping — the Iraqi Army into shape.

After another inglorious retreat by the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administra­tion on June 10th announced a change: the United States will send 450 more troops to estab­lish a new base at al-Taqaddum in Anbar province.

It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for US weapons and a fiction for the media.

The United States will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states. The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on ISIS.

It is, of course, impossible. Everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows ISIS is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.

This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. US Army General Martin Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — small American bases scattered around the country. Of course, they will require hundreds more US military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an ISIS frog. Any attack on US troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the United States deeper into open conflict.

In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host govern­ment the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.

We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.

Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisers to combat troops took years during the Vietnam War. Obama reached the adviser stage in just months .

The Iranians fighting in Iraq share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back the Islamic State but, like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ulti­mately have an agenda in conflict with US policy.

Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of US-mid­wifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders. They have proceeded independently amid incompe­tence and corruption. Both wars are characterised as good versus evil.

Despite the stakes, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country.

In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, the United States sits in the centre, used by all, trusted by none.

One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor: The United States eventu­ally left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.

But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back to Vietnam.

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