Hopes are waning that the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in Iraq would stop the momentum of the group's drives down the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys and the western suburbs of Baghdad. It was thought that blunting the pace of the advance would provide "time and space" military planners often talk about, giving the beleaguered Iraqi security forces (the combined units of the Iraqi Army and police forces) an opportunity to reorganize their capabilities and re-engage ISIS.
That appears to have been wishful thinking. According to a senior Iraqi official, the Iraqi Army command structure has "evaporated." While there are good soldiers in the army, the leadership has been gutted over the past three years in the absence of American oversight after the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. American troops departed in 2011 following the failure of the Obama Administration and the government of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach a Status of Forces Agreement acceptable to both sides.
Without an American presence in the country working with the senior leadership of the Iraqi armed forces, there was no check on al-Maliki's purging of the leadership, replacing qualified officers - many of them Sunnis - with his personal circle of cronies. Many of these replacements - almost all Shi'as - had little military experience, certainly not at the level at which they were placed in the Iraqi command structure. Corruption, always a problem in Iraq, became rampant and the force became hollow.
When stressed by the ISIS advance in June of this year, the Iraqi command structure collapsed. The failure of leadership caused entire units - even complete brigades - to simply melt away, abandoning their positions and huge amounts of newly-supplied American-made weapons, vehicle and equipment.
What we are witnessing now is a demonstration of just how sophisticated ISIS has become since they surprised many observers when they seized Iraq's second largest city of Mosul four months ago. ISIS is about to take the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani (the Kurdish name for 'Ayn al'Arab), while simultaneously conducting offensive operations in the Euphrates Valley and the outskirts of Baghdad. There are reports of them moving as many as 10,000 fighters from the Mosul area and eastern Syria to reinforce their units in al-Anbar province.
The battlefields near Baghdad and Kobani are 500 miles apart; Mosul is 250 miles distant. Moving men and materiel over those distances requires somewhat effective command and control. The fact that ISIS has that capability should not be surprising - much of the senior leadership of what is now ISIS is comprised of former Iraqi military officers and Ba'th Party officials, men with experience in conducting both military operations and civil governance.
Over the last weeks, ISIS has continued its advances in al-Anbar province, attempting to consolidate its previous gains and seize territory that it had bypassed earlier. What is alarming is its seizing of positions just west of Baghdad, only about 10 miles from Baghdad International Airport. The airport is home to many of the U.S. troops deployed to defend American facilities in the country, and includes a detachment of AH-64 Apache helicopters. These helicopters have recently been used to conduct strikes against ISIS positions in the area southwest of Baghdad. Keeping the airport secure is a vital part of emergency evacuation plans for the U.S. Embassy and the multitude of American citizens in the country.
Now we have U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel admitting, "Anbar province is in trouble." That is significant by itself, but when the tribal leaders who comprise the provincial council in al-Anbar demand of the Iraqi government in Baghdad that it request the re-introduction of American ground forces into the area, the situation is grave indeed. The president of the al-Anbar Provincial Council, Salah al-Karhut, said the province was in danger of "imminent collapse" and re-iterated that the Iraqi Army was not sufficient to defend the area from ISIS.
This request underscores just how ineffective the Iraqi Army has become. Since ISIS moved into northern Iraq in June, the Army has consistenly proven itself incapable of not only retaking lost Iraqi territory, but in merely stopping the ISIS advance. Even with the added firepower provided by U.S. and coalition aircraft, it is only a very few elite units of the Iraqi Army that have successfully fought ISIS. The retaking of the Mosul Dam (with Kurdish peshmerga help) and the defense of the al-Hadithah Dam are such operations. That said, al-Hadithah is completely surrounded and again under siege by ISIS.
Will the deployment of additional ground forces be required to safeguard al-Anbar province, and maybe more importantly, the western suburbs of Baghdad? It appears so.
Will the situation require the deployment of American troops? That probably is not the real question. The real question is if American troops are required, will they be committed to the fight?
If ISIS is the major threat to the United States as articulated by President Obama when he spoke to the country and authorized airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, perhaps it is time for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey to recommend to the President that he reconsider the deployment of American ground troops to address that threat. Conversely, if ISIS is not a major threat, why are we putting American airmen at risk?