Best Defense

It’s time for an American course correction in Iraq, and here’s how to do it

The Pentagon is outlining plans to send 400 to 1,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq to train new Iraqi Army recruits and Sunni tribal fighters.

Iraqi Sunni fighters battling Islamic State (IS) group jihadists alongside government forces fire their weapons on the outskirts of Iraq's Baiji oil refinery, about 200 kilometres north of Baghdad, on May 25, 2015. Iraq rejected accusations by the US defence chief that its security forces dodged battle in Ramadi and lack the will to fight the IS group. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Sunni fighters battling Islamic State (IS) group jihadists alongside government forces fire their weapons on the outskirts of Iraq's Baiji oil refinery, about 200 kilometres north of Baghdad, on May 25, 2015. Iraq rejected accusations by the US defence chief that its security forces dodged battle in Ramadi and lack the will to fight the IS group. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Lemoyne Henry
Best Defense guest columnist

The Pentagon is outlining plans to send 400 to 1,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq to train new Iraqi Army recruits and Sunni tribal fighters. While the Obama administration is branding this as a continuation of success versus a change in strategy, it continues to raise the question: Is our strategy working? Those within the government, from CENTCOM Commander Gen. Austin to senior officials within the White House say it is; the evidence says otherwise.

Since the U.S. and coalition partners began air strikes last October they claim to have killed anywhere from 10,000 to 13,000 ISIS fighters and numerous pieces of ISIS equipment. Despite these significant loses, the terror group has been able to secure Ramadi — the provincial capital of Anbar province — and claim control over 80 percent of the Bayji Oil Refinery and the majority of the city of Bayji. What’s more, ISIS has continually controlled most areas of Anbar province allowing the free movement of fighters and supplies from Syria into Iraq. Why is that? How, if the United States’ strategy is working, can ISIS gain more territory in Central and Western Iraq while losing very little territory in the North to the Kurds? Sure, the United States can claim a large body count but success in war is not measured by body counts. It is measured by the securing sections of territory to expand a states (or entities) reach and influence, an element that tips the scales in favor of ISIS.

The answers to why the U.S. is failing is not as simple as send more troops, train more Iraqis, and fly more armed sorties. Most of the issues with the current U.S. mission in Iraq have to do with the quality of training the Iraqi forces are receiving and the ability of U.S. forces to place munitions on target in a timely and accurate manner. The plans recently outlined by the pentagon call for more troops to help train regular Iraqi Army forces and Sunni Tribal fighters whom will likely be receiving the same, if not less, training than the current Iraqi Army units who frequently abandoned their position and equipment in the face of minimal opposition. This is no fault of the US forces assigned to train the Iraqi’s but rather style of training the U.S. is giving the Iraqis.

As it stands Iraqi forces are being trained to shoot-move-and-communicate, the basics of any infantry unit. The main issue with this is the Iraqi forces as a whole lack the ability to conduct these tactics in an effective manner. Whether it is due to incompetence in the leadership or internal sectarian derision the majority of Iraqi Army units are virtually ineffective. This is causing relatively small groups of ISIS fighters to overpower much larger Iraqi Army forces, sometimes the ratio being 10:1.  Another key tool these conventional Iraqi Army units lack is the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) which provides a unit the ability to call for fire and provide accurate targets for the US and coalition aircraft sorties. Without JTACs, U.S. and coalition aircraft must heavily rely on drones to observe a targets true position before it is struck adding serious delays in putting Bombs on Target.

Units that do not suffer from these inabilities are those which belong to the Iraqi Special Forces (ISOF). Units such as the Special Tactics Unit (STU) and Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) are highly trained in not only basic infantry tactics but also call for fire missions and they most have certified English speaking JTACs. These JTACs typically have an improved ability to locate ISIS targets and provide accurate descriptions — partly due to them not having to be translated by a low paid interpreter who may or may not understand basic military terms — allowing U.S. and coalition bombs to be dropped on the target in an expeditious manner. ISOF units are also broken into smaller units offering an improved ability to shoot-move-and-communicate and offering more trust and less sectarian dissent within.

With the Iraqi Army in mind and the Pentagon’s plan to increase the number of U.S. troops Iraq several questions again are raised. The American strategy clearly isn’t working, so why the increase in troops? Are more troops going to positively affect the Iraqi Army’s inability to fight or fix the issues within? The first answer I cannot give the latter is inevitably NO. What is needed is a change in strategy. The US should refocus their efforts to training competent and capable ISOF units with a structure similar to the Marine Corps’ Air Naval Gun Fire Liaison Company (ANGLICO). Highly specialized ISOF units structured with the ANGLICO model would give the Iraqi’s the tools they need to succeed in battling ISIS by providing Forward Observers (FOs) and JTACs to both conventional and ISOF units offering ability to call for fire and quickly and accurately put bombs on target.

By using specialized US Special Forces and Marine ANGLICO units, the U.S. can effectively change its strategy in Iraqi. This strategy would not only reduce the number of troops the U.S. must commit to assist in the battle against ISIS, but improve the overall ability of the Iraqi’s to regain territory. More troops is not the path the U.S. and coalition should to be taking at this time, instead a complete change in course before the U.S. and its coalition veer onto the same path taken in the 1960s by JFK and LBJ. All that is needed is White and Pentagon officials to admit when a plan isn’t working and correct it before the U.S. is lead into another Vietnam.

Lemoyne Henry is an staff sergeant and intelligence analyst in the Marine Corps with four combat deployments (two Iraq/two Afghanistan). He will be receiving his B.S. in Strategic Studies & Defense Analysis from Norwich University this summer. This article represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the Marine Corps, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government. 

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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