The Cable

The Pentagon Wants to Build New Bases in Iraq. Will More U.S. Troops Follow?

Just a day after announcing the coming deployment of 450 additional troops to Iraq, Defense Department officials on Thursday upped the ante and outlined a plan to expand the number of American bases in the country — and potentially pave the way for even more troops to deploy to the war zone. Joint Chiefs Chairman ...

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers take part in a training exercise led by the Spanish Army and under the guidance of the US military in the Basmaya camp in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on May 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI        (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqi soldiers take part in a training exercise led by the Spanish Army and under the guidance of the US military in the Basmaya camp in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on May 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

Just a day after announcing the coming deployment of 450 additional troops to Iraq, Defense Department officials on Thursday upped the ante and outlined a plan to expand the number of American bases in the country — and potentially pave the way for even more troops to deploy to the war zone.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters traveling with him in Europe that a series of bases — which he called “lily pads” — could be established around Iraq that would allow U.S. forces to reach out to Sunni tribes, more closely advise Iraqi military leadership on operations, coordinate airstrikes, and train small units of Iraqi soldiers and police.

“You could see one in the corridor from Baghdad to Tikrit to Kirkuk to Mosul,” Dempsey said. But planting the flag at these new sites could mean the deployment of more U.S. troops in addition to the 3,550 that President Barack Obama has authorized so far in the Iraq campaign. Those troops currently operate out of four training bases and a Baghdad-based operations center, with some training Iraqi troops while others helping protect the bases themselves. Building more outposts would almost certainly require sending additional forces not only to partner with the Iraqis, but to provide security at potentially vulnerable bases in Islamic State-held areas.

“We are actively considering where we can potentially establish other lily pads,” Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren confirmed on Thursday. “There are hundreds of options,” for where to put the bases, he said. “Essentially any spot where we [previously] had a forward operating base would be an option.”

Officials did not explain why this new plan to establish additional outposts in Iraq was rolled out just a day after the White House led a highly-coordinated effort to unveil the deployment of 450 additional U.S. troops to the al-Taqqadum air base, near Ramadi. No mention of the “lily pad” strategy was made by White House, State Department, or Defense Department officials during a call with the media on Wednesday.

While Dempsey said that the new outposts could be modeled on the al-Taqqadum deployment, a defense official told FP that the structure and the purpose of each would be designed to meet the specific needs of the Iraqi forces in the area. So while one might train Sunni militias, another could coordinate higher-level maneuvers by Iraqi units, or provide targeting data for airstrikes.

But the train, advise, and assist plan has come in for its share of criticism. Shawn Brimley, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, told FP that “unless we are willing to do combat advising inside of actual Iraqi fighting units, the additional U.S. forces might not make much of a difference.”

Brimley, a former director for strategic planning on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, added that “having someone stand over the shoulder of an Iraqi general in some distant command center probably isn’t going to be all that helpful” at the ground level of the fight against the Islamic State.

But the Iraqi army does need help. Iraqi forces have “shown the will to fight,” said Ahmed Ali, a visiting senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that develops programs to help Iraqi youth. While willing to shoot back, however, Iraqi military leadership has shown an inability to properly plan operations, move supplies to troops in the field, and communicate with its leadership in a timely manner. One of the reasons that Iraqi forces broke and fled Ramadi in May was the inability of the commander on the ground to talk with his superiors in Baghdad, both Iraqi and U.S. officials have said. This led to a breakdown in command and contributed to the much-larger Iraqi force fleeing in the face of a relatively small number of Islamic State fighters.

Ali sees the planned American outreach to the Sunni tribes as a positive step, however, given their distrust of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. “The tribes will see them as more honest brokers,” than the Iraqi military, he said.

Photo credit: ALI AL-SAAD/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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