Between Iraq and a Hard Place

As I commented in my post of 17 June, the United States has a difficult task ahead in figuring out how to deal with the advances of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Although their progress slowed in late June and through July, as you are aware, they have now turned northward towards the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.  These ISIS fighters are a much more formidable force, with skilled tacticians and some sense of strategic objectives, than most originally thought possible.  On Thursday, President Obama authorized the use of American air power to avert a humanitarian disaster and to help the Kurds resist ISIS advances.  More on that in a moment.

For months the Obama Administration resisted pressure to get involved again in Iraq.  Primarily,  it was because there was no clear path to follow without significant changes in the political climate in Iraq.  In the end, with extremely few historical outliers, wars can only be ended through political means.  The loser gets to decide when the war is over, no matter how badly beaten they may be.  The situation is the same in Iraq.  The Shiite dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki is extremely unpopular in many areas of the country.  Until a broader based government is in place, there is little to no chance of stability returning to Iraq.  The United States cannot fix that.  And yet, here we are getting involved again.

Part of the issue is that we cannot ignore the territorial spread of the pernicious tenants of the ISIS fighters.  They dominate much of Iraq, essentially controlling the northern and western parts of the country, as well as parts of Syria. There is no question that ISIS is bad news, bringing death and destruction to anyone that opposes them or their extremely fundamentalist view of Islam.  The role that the U.S. can play in stopping them is difficult to determine, especially as ISIS is also fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Part of the issue is that the Iraqi Army, at least those Sunni dominated units, do not have the will or the ability to oppose ISIS.  US military advisers and intelligence personnel have helped the Iraqi units that are willing to resist (unfortunately backed primarily by Shiite militia units) to stop them from advancing towards Baghdad, but is unclear how the Iraqi military will act to confront ISIS where it already exists.

The unexpected development is the inability of Kurdish fighters to stop the ISIS advance.  The Kurdish fighters, or peshmerga, are tough, experienced fighters.  They were expected to be a bulwark in stopping the ISIS advance and thereby preserving a part of Iraq that could be used as a staging area for further efforts against ISIS and to provide a bastion for United States military and other personnel to operate out of the United States Consulate in Irbil.  This plan fell apart this week as Kurdish forces were becoming overwhelmed by the ISIS fighters, partly because of their use of captured American heavy weapons that Iraqi forces left behind in their eagerness to abandon their posts in the June fighting.  The Kurds were the most supportive of U.S. efforts in Iraq and a bond exists between the U.S. military and Kurds.  Additionally, a very large humanitarian crisis was unfolding as tens of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the ISIS forces found themselves stuck atop a barren mountain range without adequate food or water.  The combination of factors could not be ignored.

Complicated indeed.  Thus, President Obama’s decision to provide air power to try to alleviate the situation.  This effort is currently underway in two parts.  First, air drops of food, water, and other supplies are taking place for those trapped on the barren mountains.  It was a situation that only a major power could alleviate.  Second, fighter/bomber forces were authorized to protect the airdrops and to attack ISIS fighters where they threatened Kurdish forces protecting U.S. interests in Irbil.  This part is more difficult to understand.  Both parts of the operation could potentially drag the U.S. back into combat in Iraq or conversely, tarnish our reputation as a world power.  Only time will tell, but here are the pitfalls that I see coming and that may be difficult to avoid.

The United States, with the United Kingdom, has already undertaken a nearly similar effort in providing relief in this part of Iraq.  It occurred in 1991 and was called Operation Provide Comfort.  This effort took place following Gulf War I when Saddam Hussein turned his wrath inward on his own people following his defeat in Kuwait.  In short, a humanitarian crisis developed as tens of thousands of Kurds fled Saddam’s forces and were trapped without food and water.  The U.S. and U.K. began air operations to provide food, water, and other supplies to the Kurds.  As it happened, there was no expertise on the Kurdish side to assist in the effort, so it was decided to put logisticians on the ground to help the air dropped supplies land in the proper places and to distribute those supplies.  This precipitated the need for security forces to also be on the ground to protect the logisticians.  This led to a major undertaking.  I trust that some of the current planners in the Pentagon, Baghdad and Irbil remember this operation, and how what seems to be a simple thing — getting food and water to people who need it — can quickly become a much larger and more involved task.  It is never as simple or easy as it seems.

More worrisome to me are the “limited” air strikes.  The tenants of military forces, simply put, are “Deter, Defend, Defeat” — deter the enemy from attacking, defend against attacks if deterrence fails, and then defeat the enemy.  We already know that ISIS is not and will not be deterred by the threat of limited air strikes.  The intent of the authorized action is to defend the Kurdish fighters, the results of which are unknown and will be unknown for some time.  We also already know that limited air strikes (despite the headlines and rhetoric, a total of twelve 500 pound bombs and a drone strike in the desert are a pin prick) will not defeat ISIS.  So where are we going?  Heavier airstrikes?  Special forces on the ground to locate targets?  More advisers in Iraq?  The path ahead is unclear to me, and there is no obvious strategy at play in the use of our military force.

My concern is that either the United States — and it is unlikely that we will get any other nation actively involved to help us — will get drawn into another major conflict in the Middle East, or do little more than what we have done already the last few days and look ineffective at best in our efforts.  We are in a tough situation, sure to be damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

There are some that can make a good case that we should get involved yet again in Iraq, especially against such an evil force as ISIS.  I am not so sure.  In the end, only the forces on the ground — Iraqis, be they Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites — with their own homes and families hanging in the balance can make a difference.

There are a number of intermediate steps that can be taken, of course, without full American involvement.  The question is how effective they will be.  Remember that we spent eight years, nearly a trillion dollars, and lost 4,487 Americans in our last attempt to fix the problem.  It does not seem to me that a few bombs from some carrier based F-18s are going to solve it now.

These are indeed dangerous times.  Actions are required.  Let’s hope that our leaders understand history and make the right decisions.