A few days ago, President Barack Obama ordered an additional 450 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to augment the 3,100 American troops already there. According to news reports, these additional troops will deploy to al-Anbar province in western Iraq, a Sunni-dominated area under pressure from fighters of the so-called Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The capital city of al-Anbar province, al-Ramadi, recently fell to ISIS, despite Iraqi security forces efforts - army units, militias and police forces - to prevent ISIS from seizing the city. The fall of al-Ramadi was a serious blow to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi - the city is a mere 65 miles west of Baghdad.
To make matters worse, ISIS is now moving down the Euphrates River valley towards the second city of al-Anbar province, al-Fallujah. Al-Fallujah, a name well known to American troops because of the intense fighting in the city in past years, is only 30 miles west of Baghdad. While a direct ISIS assault on Baghdad itself is not likely, we can expect to see an increase in the number of suicide attacks and bombings in the Shi'a sections of the capital.
The President's decision to send more troops is an admission that either his current strategy - or the execution of that strategy - is failing. In 2014, the initial small cadre was deployed to Baghdad to assess and re-train the Iraqi army following the humiliating collapse of several Iraqi Army divisions as ISIS seized Mosul (al-Mawsil), Iraq's second largest city. That was one year ago - since then, ISIS has expanded its territory in both Iraq and Syria despite the U.S.-led coalition air campaign and Iraqi military operations.
The Obama strategy - which has been in place for a year despite the President's claim last week at the G-7 meeting in Germany that he was still waiting for a strategy from the Pentagon - was to use U.S.-led coalition airpower in conjunction with Iraqi boots on the ground. That sounds good on paper, but I think reality has set in at the Department of Defense. Iraqi forces are in such poor condition - thanks to the premature withdrawal of American trainers/advisers in 2011 - that they are incapable of functioning as coherent military units.
The Obama Administration has lost much of its credibility through its constant claims that ISIS is on the defensive, that it cannot mount offensive operations, that thousands of its fighters are being killed, that Iraqi forces are on the rebound. Those statements fly in the face of reality.
Looking at recent Iraqi military operations, the only one that could possibly be construed as a success is the retaking of Tikrit. In reality, however, that was basically an Iranian-backed Shi'a militia operation using heavy artillery to turn large parts of the city into piles of rubble. Even after that, it required the withdrawal of the militias and application of American airpower to finally finish of the much smaller group of ISIS fighters tenaciously holding on in the city.
Almost immediately after the President announced his strategy in 2014, Iraqi leaders postulated that it would only be a few months before they would retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. The initial claims of the Administration strategy was to provide the Iraqi political leadership and the military forces the "time and space" needed to regroup and launch a campaign to retake Mosul "in a few months." That bluster fell by the wayside when the first American trainers provided their assessment of the current state of the Iraqi military. Given what we have seen in the last year, the idea of Iraqi forces retaking Mosul anytime soon is ludicrous.
While the Tikrit operation was bandied as a success for the Iraqi military and American strategy, ISIS was able to move enough forces - despite uncontested American air operations over the entire country - south to encircle and seize al-Ramadi. How was that possible? Either the strategy of American-led airpower combined with Iraqi "boots on the ground" is flawed, or it is not being executed properly.
I suspect it is some of both.
The basics of a successful strategy are there, but needs substantial modification. There are things the American military does better than anyone else in the world. One of those is the application of airpower, and the other is the use of combined arms - air and land forces employed together in what has become known as the AirLand Battle. If the Obama Administration would apply elements of what we do best, the situation in Iraq can be turned around.
It will not be because we are deploying 450 additional advisers to expand and continue executing the same failed strategy.
How do we fix this? Assuming that we are not going to deploy American combat troops to fight ISIS, we can work with a modified version of the Obama strategy. First, the air campaign has to be a real air campaign, not the anemic effort that is currently being waged. There is no reason that ISIS should be able to move on the roads in Iraq (or Syria). Given the complete dominance of the air and the capability of the array of intelligence and surveillance sensors available to the air battle planners, the U.S.-led coalition should be able to stop ISIS in its tracks. Of course, that requires that the White House stop micro-managing battlefield operations half a world away.
U.S. pilots constantly complain about the cumbersome chain of command and long delays in approvals to conduct offensive operations - approvals they should already have before they take off. When they can clearly see ISIS engaged in logistic support or actual combat operations, let our pilots do their jobs. See my earlier piece on this: Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS? (March 2015).
Combined with streamlining the target validation process, the pilots need better "eyes on target" - that means American eyeballs on the ground with Iraqi troops designating targets. The U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force have been doing this effectively for decades - teams with ground units who can not only designate targets, but provide tactical control, immediate fire correction and instant damage assessment. To utilize airpower to its fullest - especially when you have troops in contact - you need these tactical air control parties (TACP) on the ground. We have people who do this as a profession - get them into the fight.
In conjunction with putting these TACPs into the fight, embed U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps officers in Iraqi military units to provide advice and assistance and work with the TACP personnel to maximize U.S./coalition capabilities in support of Iraqi military operations. If the American troops are truly advisers, they need to be out in the field with the units they have trained. You cannot "advise" from a secure base tens of miles away.
The President and the Secretary of Defense have a serious decision to make, and they need to make it soon. If they are serious about achieving the President's stated goal to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS, they need to refine the rules of engagement and get into the fight. As it stands now, we are merely reacting to ISIS's moves - that's not how you win wars.
Yes, Mr. Obama, this is a war. American forces are in harm's way all day, everyday - let them do their jobs. You keep reminding us that you are the Commander in Chief - now is the time to start acting like it.