Argument

Prelude to a Quagmire

The addition of 450 new U.S. military trainers to Iraq is the next step down a slippery slope.

TAJI, IRAQ - APRIL 12:  A U.S. Army trainer (L), instructs an Iraqi Army recruit at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq. U.S. forces, currently operating in 5 large bases throught the country, are training thousands of Iraqi Army combat troops, trying to rebuild a force they had origninally trained before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010. Members of the U.S. Army's 5-73 CAV, 3BCT, 82nd Airborne Division are teaching members of the newly-formed 15th Division of the Iraqi Army, as the Iraqi government launches offensives to try to recover territory lost to ISIS last year.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TAJI, IRAQ - APRIL 12: A U.S. Army trainer (L), instructs an Iraqi Army recruit at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq. U.S. forces, currently operating in 5 large bases throught the country, are training thousands of Iraqi Army combat troops, trying to rebuild a force they had origninally trained before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010. Members of the U.S. Army's 5-73 CAV, 3BCT, 82nd Airborne Division are teaching members of the newly-formed 15th Division of the Iraqi Army, as the Iraqi government launches offensives to try to recover territory lost to ISIS last year. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama said last week that the U.S. effort to train the Iraqi military to better fight the Islamic State has suffered not from an insufficiency of training capacity, but of trainees. Three days later, he ordered the deployment of 450 additional military trainers to Iraq. This new infusion of talent is accompanied by a subtle change in rhetoric: The new trainers will do more than train; they will advise, plan, integrate, and support. In short, these troops will be intimately involved with organizing and commanding defensive and offensive operations by the Iraqi Army. And that appears to be the first step down a slippery slope that could embroil the U.S. military in Iraq for years and years to come.

U.S. leaders often repeat that the overall goal in Iraq is to “ultimately defeat” the Islamic State. If they are serious and hope to go on the offensive soon, then the measures they have adopted so far are clearly inadequateand the most recent steps are unlikely to tip the scales. The Iraqi Army barely exists. Officers and troops seem prone to confusion at best, panic at worst. Few Sunni Arab soldiers remain in regular Army units, rendering them unfit for security duties in Sunni-majority areas. Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s rampage continues: In mid-May, they took the city of Ramadi, Anbar province’s capital, from government forces.

In the hopes of truly turning the tide, the United States has taken virtual ownership of the campaigns to eject the Islamic State from Ramadi, the rest of Anbar province, and ultimately Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the jihadis took a year ago. The incentives facing U.S. commanders and politicians are leading them ever closer to direct combat. If these assaults begin with U.S. ownership, they must end with U.S. victory. If they fail to unseat the Islamic State from these areas, it will be a political embarrassment at home and abroad. Critics of the administration’s policy will trumpet the loss of U.S. credibility. Shiite politicians in Iraq will use it as proof that Iran is a more reliable ally. And Islamic State leaders will celebrate their victory over the United States.

Clearly, there are strong incentives for the United States to add sufficient combat power to these campaigns to secure victory. If U.S. forces plan, resource, and command these campaigns, then they will be tempted to do other things, as well. In 2010-2011, the last time the Iraqi Army demonstrated any real competence — as suggested by both their low casualties and the general decline of civilian deaths across the country — each of its battalions typically had a dozen U.S. advisors, and large U.S. combat formations backstopped most major Iraqi Army units. Iraqi fire support is poor, so U.S. forces will not only need to provide air support, as they are doing now, but they will need to provide attack helicopters and artillery, too.

Retaking cities like Ramadi and Mosul could also require dangerous urban combat. To win in these cities, it will be necessary to attach U.S. forces to Iraqi units to direct air support from drones and aircraft, and to coordinate artillery and attack helicopter strikes, as well. Given the chaotic nature of urban fighting, and the dubious cohesion of Iraqi combat units, one suspects that for every advisory and targeting team, there will be at least a U.S. infantry squad providing security. And given that in urban combat events can always take a fast turn for the worse, a quick reaction force to pull these U.S. troops out of trouble will also be on call. Finally, if Iraqi ground forces get hung up by the kind of well-prepared urban defense the Islamic State has demonstrated in past battles, the U.S. forces will wish to have an even more capable tactical reserve, ready to commit to the fight.

All together, this means that before you know it, the U.S. force will get pretty large, probably one U.S. brigade combat team, 10,000 soldiers with support, to backstop every four or five Iraqi brigades, even if the plan still calls for Iraqi infantry to lead the house-to-house, building-to-building fighting. When the United States fought its last big solo urban fight in Anbar province, in Fallujah in 2004, the Marines who did the bulk of the fighting suffered high numbers of dead and wounded. The recent battle for Tikrit provides little reassurance: It was immensely costly and destructive, with hundreds killed on both sides. Yet it was also indecisive, as many Islamic State fighters escaped. Battles for Ramadi and Mosul, both larger cities, would likely prove even harder.

Even if U.S. forces can assure that Ramadi, Anbar province, and Mosul are returned to the Iraqi government’s control, the hard work won’t be over. Then the task will turn to consolidation and stabilization. Some citizens in these areas support the Islamic State, and they will likely go underground and continue to fight, while others simply will not welcome the Iraqi central government back with open arms. As many as 100,000 troops and police may ultimately be required to secure the Sunni Arab majority regions of Iraq. Shiite-dominated security forces would either be ineffectual in these areas, or worse, vengeful and destructive, as demonstrated by their recent behavior after the re-conquest of Tikrit.

The United States cannot afford the Iraqi military and police failing to stabilize the Sunni heartland. This would create still more jihadi recruits and associate the United States with police state tactics, thus rendering the whole liberation project and the costs associated with it counterproductive and politically embarrassing at home and abroad. Washington hopes to train Sunni forces to restore and maintain order, but they are starting from almost nothing: The Iraqi security forces are dangerously sectarian and incompetent. To ensure that order is maintained, and more Sunnis are not alienated, some U.S. forces will need to be involved in stabilization efforts, advising and monitoring Iraqi security forces, providing the intelligence necessary to suppress insurgents, and giving precision fire support that assures tactical success with low collateral damage. Ironically, the more territory that is wrested from the Islamic State’s control, the greater the demands for additional U.S. forces will be. And these forces will need to stay for the foreseeable future. It would not be a surprise if those U.S. troops sent to help eject the Islamic State from major cities and towns needed to remain to prevent the Islamic State’s return.

The president and his advisors are probably aware that they are on the slippery slope. They hope that the Islamic State will be defeated by a reinvigorated, multi-sectarian Iraqi Army, backed by limited and selective use of U.S. air power. But if this new security force cannot be built — and experience suggests that it cannot — the United States will be faced with two choices: It can follow the path traced above, a path that leads the United States back into direct participation in conventional combat in Iraq, as well as open-ended stabilization operations. Or the president can admit that all this talk of ultimately defeating the Islamic State is exactly that — talk. Instead, the United States will have to settle for containment, which can be achieved at bargain prices, with a low U.S. profile.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Barry R. Posen is the author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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