March 21, 2016

More U.S. ground troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

Red: US Firebase / Greens: Iraqi Kurds / Grey: ISIS / Yellow: Syrian Kurds
(Click on image for larger view)

A U.S. Marine was killed in Iraq on March 19 during an attack on an American firebase located on the front lines between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That same base was attacked again two days later, prompting headlines like this: "The Pentagon to Expand Secret Military Firebase in Iraq After Marine Killed."

According to American military public affairs officers, the "secret" base is located near the Iraqi city of Makhmur. The base, along with other military garrisons in the area, will play a key role in the preparations for the military campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. Mosul is only about 45 miles from Makhmur, and thus is a primary marshaling and staging area for the campaign to retake Mosul from ISIS.

The Iraqis are pouring large numbers of military units into the area, as well they should. This will be a major campaign, larger than anything the Iraqi Army has undertaken since the (premature) withdrawal of American forces in 2011. The battles for Tikrit, Bayji and al-Ramadi were good rehearsals, but Mosul is a much tougher challenge. It is larger and will involve long lines of communications.

It will take time to amass the required forces to liberate Mosul - ISIS has had two years to build defenses, including mines, booby traps, barriers, as well as pre-surveyed kill zones. I, along with other military analysts, are skeptical that Iraqi forces will be ready for an assault on Mosul this year.

There are several troubling aspects of this recent incident and the Obama Administration's response.

First and foremost, we have the loss of a U.S. Marine - Staff Sergeant Louis F. Cardin, 27, of Temecula, California. I believe it important that I include the name of this young man who was killed in action in the service of our country. I hope the Obama Administration does not dishonor his sacrifice by attempting to describe this as anything other than a combat death.

The Marines are manning what is called Firebase Bell. They are on a firebase exclusively manned by Americans - there are no Iraqi forces present. These troops are manning four 155mm howitzers, providing fire support to Iraqi forces.

The Marines' M777 155mm howitzers are effective and highly accurate weapons, capable of tremendous firepower at ranges up to 25 miles. Given the location of the firebase at the forward edge of Iraqi government control - in this case in the form of the Kurdish peshmerga - it is no wonder that ISIS wants to silence those guns.

That said, I fail to understand how these Marines are considered anything but "boots on the ground." With no Iraqi forces present, how can their mission possibly be construed as "advise and assist?" It can't - they are there to protect other American forces as well as Iraqi troops in the area. What bothers those of us who are old enough to have served in Vietnam is the perceived re-emergence of the "firebase mentality." It failed then, and it will fail now.

More shades of Vietnam - the incremental escalation of the number of American forces on the ground, coupled with the gradual expansion of their role. What began as a few hundred advisers has grown into several thousand troops from all services, including a special forces contingent conducting direct action missions. That is called "mission creep."

It was on one of these direct action missions last year that we lost a U.S. Army Special Forces noncommissioned officer. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39, of the famed Delta Force was killed - again, the Administration attempted to create the fiction that his was not a combat death. Shameful.

In response to the two attacks, the Pentagon is deploying additional Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to Firebase Bell, adding to the already almost 4,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq. The numbers can be deceptive, though. They do not include the thousands of American forces spread throughout the region - but not in Iraq - who conduct and support the air campaign, and maintain a robust naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

That naval presence includes the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, with almost 2000 Marines of the 26th MEU embarked, and the helicopters to deploy them. These are combat troops, not advisers - yes, boots on the ground, despite the Administration's word games to the contrary.

To complicate matters, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia (probably at the instigation of perennial Iraqi troublemaker Muqtada al-Sadr) warned that U.S. Marines would be considered occupation forces, despite the fact that they are fighting ISIS. We had a chance to neutralize Muqtada in 2003 - we should have availed ourselves of that opportunity. I digress.

So, we have the incremental expansion of the size and scope of our military presence in Iraq. I fear we are sliding down a slippery slope with no clear mission or plan. If ISIS is indeed a threat to American national security, then let's address it. Stop the half-hearted measures and make the tough decisions. Forget the "boots on the ground" myth - that die is cast, that lie is past.

Make up your mind, Mr. President - are we in this fight or not? If we are, go big. If we are not, go home.