President Barack Obama’s decision to send 450 additional troops to Iraq to train Sunni soldiers for the fight against the Islamic State has been hailed as a major shift of focus for the American war effort. But it’s not. And even with the addition of another 125 British trainers, it isn’t likely to turn the tide in the battle for Iraq.
ISIS has had the initiative since it took Mosul a year ago. Its recent capture of Ramadi, the capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, met with the same Iraqi collapse as the capture of Mosul, with government troops abandoning American-supplied weapons as they fled the battlefield.
American air strikes have slowed or turned back ISIS when combined with effective ground operations by, for example, Kurdish militias. But the collapse of Ramadi defenses made it clear that despite nearly a year of training and arming the Iraqi army, the 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq have not created an effective, Baghdad-led fighting force.
The decision to send additional trainers acknowledges that fact. So does the reported decision to postpone any efforts to retake Mosul until next year.
It is evident that President Obama does not want to get any deeper into the Iraq war than absolutely necessary. But his military advisers do him a disservice if they fail to stress the need for a stronger commitment. It was refreshing to hear Defense Secretary Ashton Carter describe the Ramadi rout as due to the lack of “a will to fight” among Iraqi government forces. That at least signals an awareness of the difficult struggle ahead.
The president said this week that his strategy for defeating ISIS is not yet “complete” because of Iraq’s weakness. The question is how long the commander in chief will wait until he shifts to a strategy that copes with that reality.
Military experts have made numerous suggestions for improving the effectiveness of U.S. assistance to Iraq without sending in ground troops. For example, air strikes could be greatly increased, and become more effective, if there were air-ground coordination supplied by specially trained U.S. troops who would go into battle with Iraqis for that purpose alone.
Sunni and Kurdish troops, who have been effective, could be supplied weapons and other aid directly without allowing it to pass through corrupt hands in the central government.
But the White House, in its most recent announcement of sending more troops to Iraq, stressed that they will not become engaged in combat and that added weapons for Sunni troops will still be sent through the central government.
The president is sticking to his guns, so to speak, but there remains serious doubt that his current military strategy can succeed.