ERBIL — If we look at the role played by the United States in Iraq, there is no doubt that the Americans have achieved some very important things in the campaign against the Islamic State (IS). For example, the airstrikes that began on August 8th, directed at IS attacking Kurdish Peshmerga did in fact help to put the terrorists back on their heels, and blunt their offensive. Certainly, the arms and ammunition provided to those same Peshmerga have allowed them to face IS with some additional capability than they had before. And we can conclude that actions by the U.S. government led to the other coalition partners stepping forward to participate.
But how committed is the Obama administration to really tackling the IS problem? Are they prepared to go all the way in this long game to achieving victory, or are we simply prolonging the story until this president walks off the stage? The evidence at this stage remains discouraging.
There are many reasons why IS is the force it still is today. And there’s a very collective ‘we’ knew they were coming. Our friends in Kurdistan and others warned the U.S. government and Baghdad of this reality, though apparently those dire warnings were not taken seriously. Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani has publicly stated that these warnings were given, but not acted upon. It was clear that IS was again looking toward Iraq as it campaigned around Fallujah at the beginning of 2014. It was even more clear that IS coveted Iraq as it rolled across Mosul and other Sunni areas of north-western Iraq. In spite of those overt acts of brutal hostility, nothing was done. Nothing was done until this vile enemy was at the gates of Erbil, threatening not only the population of this staunchly western allied city, but also the U.S. consulate there and other U.S. and Western interests. That reality tipped the scales to prompt – no force – U.S. action.
One metric that can be examined is the amount of airstrikes. The strikes through the middle of October can be directly compared to roughly the 70 day mark of the campaign. By that point in time, the U.S. had conducted more than 450 strikes in Iraq and Syria. Over a similar period of time in the 1999 Kosovo campaign, the U.S. had conducted more than 10,000 strikes. And for an even more recent comparison, the Israeli Air Force flew on average approximately 160 strike missions per day during their recent war with Hamas in Gaza. Certainly, the number of U.S. strikes have crept upward since October, but still they are far below the pace of any recent major U.S. operation. Why so few strikes against IS? Surely with all of the captured military hardware they had and the semi-conventional operations they were conducting, there must have been plenty of targets right? Or were those strikes doing just enough?
Along another line, it took two months for the Pentagon to name the operation against IS in Syria and Iraq. The operation was finally identified as Operation Inherent Resolve on October 15, 2014. During the same time period, when the military was preparing to support efforts to prevent the spread of Ebola, a name was identified for that operation – Operation United Assistance – the same day the operation was declared. Some may say naming is not a big deal. However, in modern U.S. military operational history, the failure to name a major operation is unprecedented. It was almost as if the operation was not named, it didn’t exist; and it seemed a decision was finally taken to name the operation only because of relentless questioning of administration officials.
We can certainly say who is committed to the fight against IS in Iraq. That would be Iran. They have had an array of ground troops and air force assets involved in the fight for some time and have suffered at least 60 some killed in action while fighting alongside the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, or Shiite militias. Those Iranian losses have included several senior officers at the colonel and brigadier general rank. And the once elusive leader of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force – their special forces – Major General Qasem Suleimani has been visible on the battlefield at multiple key locations during the campaign against IS. Qasem Suleimani advising and leading in Baghdad and elsewhere is the Iranian equivalent to the U.S. parking the U.S. Special Operations Command Commander, General Joseph Votel, in Baghdad. That’s no small deal.
It would seem that in this fight the U.S. is not adhering to at least one recent military imperative and has turned one legendary military axiom on its head. On the one hand, we seem to have forgotten the Powell Doctrine that was applied during the prosecution of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. That is, we should apply overwhelming force to any military objective to ensure we crush the enemy and force victory on our terms. This was a hard-learned lesson from the Vietnam era veterans like Desert Storm Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell. On the other hand, it would seem we have spun around Douglas MacArthur’s, “there is no substitute for victory,” into, ‘there is no substitute for not losing,’ which seems to be our mantra in this fight.
Personally, I would not advocate the commitment of a major combat unit ground force to the fight against IS in Iraq. With that said, the U.S. is not doing enough, nor is it showing sufficient commitment to the fight. We can see what happens with insufficient U.S. participation. The war against a depraved terrorist state slogs on and Iran shows up ready to go. Both are the worst alternatives. Much better alternatives include: deployment of Joint Terminal Air Controllers with local forces such as the Peshmerga, to better vector more airstrikes; provision of more arms, ammunition and non-lethal equipment in particular to the Kurdish Peshmerga, or provision of more basic and advanced training to all Iraqi and Kurdish Security Forces. These are the least things we should be prepared to do now. And if that is not enough in conjunction with the other coalition partners to achieve victory, then we should be prepared to step it up even further.