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Architects of Old Iraq Surge Propose New Iraq Surge

If and when American troops arrive in Iraq and Syria to carry out ground combat operations, is this the document that we will look back on as having started it all? On Friday, Kim Kagan, Fred Kagan, and Jessica Lewis — all analysts at the Institute for the Study of War — released a 29-page ...

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If and when American troops arrive in Iraq and Syria to carry out ground combat operations, is this the document that we will look back on as having started it all?

On Friday, Kim Kagan, Fred Kagan, and Jessica Lewis — all analysts at the Institute for the Study of War — released a 29-page strategy for defeating the Islamic State. Their plan envisions the deployment of as many as 25,000 American ground troops spread across Iraq and Syria and calls on the U.S. military to forge an alliance with moderate Sunnis in the two countries to overthrow the Assad government and restore stability to Iraq. Most of that force would be deployed in Iraq, but the plan envisions at least a battalion inside Syria.

Riddled with hopeful assumptions about the consequences of American military action and the existence of potential U.S. allies on the ground, the plan might very well be filed away among the sundry think tank reports produced every day in Washington were it not for the identity of its authors. Fred Kagan was one of the intellectual architects of the first U.S. surge in Iraq, the operation widely credited with helping restore stability there ahead of the 2011 U.S. withdrawal.

Together with his wife, Kim, Kagan has emerged as one of the foremost military thinkers of his generation, and this report — titled a "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State" — is sure to generate discussion among those who view President Barack Obama’s reliance on airstrikes to roll back Islamic State gains as inadequate to the task of degrading and destroying the powerful militants.

Kagan’s latest plan bears important similarities to the 2007 Iraq surge in that it envisions an operation in which U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq’s Western provinces to fight alongside Iraqi forces and persuade more moderate Sunni tribal leaders to turn on the Islamic State. The new plan extends that line of thinking by calling for the deployment of at least one American battalion, in addition to Special Forces troops, inside Syria. That battalion would be a so-called "quick reaction force" capable of quickly mobilizing to support other American troops in Syria. Another QRF force would be deployed on the Iraqi side of the border.

With U.S. forces in place, the Kagans envision American troops partnering with Iraqi and tribal forces to battle back against more radical forces. This fight, the Kagans explain, would not be limited to operations against the Islamic State but would also include Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

But in calling on U.S. forces to find allies on the ground, the Kagans present a major caveat: It is unclear whether these allies actually exist. "The feasibility of this scenario rests on the availability of willing and capable local partners in the Sunni communities in both countries," the authors write. "The existence of such potential partners and their sufficiency to the tasks are unproven hypotheses. If these hypotheses are false, then this course of action is invalid."

That raises the question about why U.S. forces should deploy in the first place in support of allies the authors aren’t sure exist. But as Kagan and his coauthors argue, "it is not possible to validate or invalidate these hypotheses without directly engaging on the ground."

To further complicate matters, the report makes no mention of the immense political challenges that would have to be navigated in order to insert an American force into both Iraq and Syria. Nor does the report explain how American troops get there in the first place.

In its formidable vagueness, the report represents more of a symptom of the current situation in Iraq and Syria than a solution to it. "In these dire circumstances, the next step we take cannot have accomplishing the desired end state as its goal," the authors write. Rather, the authors propose an "iterative" strategy that inserts American troops and tasks them with fighting their way to a solution. "The entire military campaign to defeat or destroy ISIS may not be discernable from the outset," the authors observe.

If American troops arrive in Iraq and Syria and do not find any allies on the ground, it is not clear what course of action the authors would propose. Would American troops at that point simply pull out of Iraq? History would seem to indicate that once they are there, U.S. troops will find it hard to leave Iraq.

One finds it hard not to feel immense pre-emptive pity for the 25,000 American soldiers that the Kagans could help send to Iraq and Syria.     

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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