US keeps low profile in Iraq but for how long?
LONDON - Announcements from Washington that the United States is to send extra military instructors to Iraq and set up additional training outposts failed to quash mounting criticism that the Obama administration is not doing enough to roll back the extremists of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Shortly after those reinforcements were revealed, the United States’ top two defence officials faced questioning in the US Congress over the administration’s allegedly weak and slow response to the ISIS challenge.
It prompted a spat between US Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and US Representative John Kline, R-Minn., who wanted to know: “Where are we in Iraq today? Are we winning? Are we losing? Is it a stalemate? Is it a quagmire? What is Iraq today?”
Dempsey responded that it was not up to “we”, the Americans, but rather “they”, the Iraqis, to take the lead in the fight against the jihadists. The sharp rejoinder may have reflected not just current policy but also frustration within the US military and administration at the Iraqi military’s poor performance against ISIS since the group seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on June 14, 2014.
For, elsewhere in the congressional hearing, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the challenge in the crisis was not lack of US support for the Iraqi military but rather insufficient local recruits.
“Of the 24,000 Iraqi security forces we had originally envisioned training at our four sites by this fall, we’ve only received enough recruits to be able to train about 7,000, in addition to about 2,000 counter-terrorism service personnel,” he said at the June 17th hearing.
Carter said he told Iraqi leaders that the United States was open to giving extra help to Baghdad, but “we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government”.
Pushing the blame onto Baghdad did not satisfy critics who say US President Barack Obama has failed to do enough to counter a threat that stretches well beyond the borders of the territory that ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria.
Owen West, a commentator who served two tours with the US Marines in Iraq wrote in the New York Times that Obama’s plan to send 450 soldiers to join the 3,000-strong training force already in Iraq was doomed to failure.
Rather than living inside secure bases — what Dempsey dubbed “lily pads” — where they would train Iraqi soldiers for a few weeks via lectures and drill instruction, the US advisers needed to head outside the wire with their graduates to act as frontline “combat multipliers”, West said.
“Small teams of them vastly improve the performance of local troops, at a sliver of the cost of deploying large American battalions,” he suggested.
The Soufan Group, a US-based intelligence consultancy, was similarly critical of the idea that training alone was the answer. It noted in a mid-June briefing: “It is worrisome that the fighters in the Shia militias, the Kurdish peshmerga and even the Islamic State have performed well with spotty training and resources while the Iraqi Army has performed so poorly after $26 billion and nearly a decade’s worth of training.”
Other critics of the White House, such as US Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., described the dispatch of a few hundred extra trainers as “incrementalism”. Those opposed to a more robust US intervention prefer the term “mission creep”.
Despite what Obama’s critics see as an inadequate response to ISIS, the president who was elected in part on a promise to get American troops out of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has ruled out a renewed combat role for US forces.
Further constraints include a need to avoid civilian casualties in bombing by US and other coalition air forces as well as caution in supplying weapons that might ultimately be used for purposes other than combating ISIS or might fall into the hands of the militant group.
General Ray Odierno, the US Army chief of staff who served in Iraq during the war there, said deployment of the extra trainers did not amount to mission creep.
Defining the challenge that faced Washington and Baghdad, in an appearance on MSNBC he told an interviewer: “What’s happened inside of Iraq is you have a Shia army. You have a Kurdish army in the north. You have no Sunnis participating. And that’s the fundamental problem.”
To get around that problem, the United States will get directly involved in recruiting and supplying Arab tribes, particularly in Anbar province, the Sunni province that’s become the main battlefield. But that involves effectively bypassing the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad where many regard Iran, not the United States, as the key strategic ally.