Voice for re­straint in Iraq: Mil­i­tary

Pen­tagon’s tone shifts af­ter the fall of Ra­madi


As Pres­i­dent Obama was weigh­ing how to halt Is­lamic State ad­vances in Iraq, some of the strong­est re­sis­tance to boost­ing U.S. in­volve­ment came from a sur­pris­ing place: a war-weary mil­i­tary that has grown in­creas­ingly skep­ti­cal that force can pre­vail in a con­flict fu­eled by po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious griev­ances.

Top mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, who have typ­i­cally ar­gued for more com­bat power to over­come bat­tle­field set­backs over the past decade, emerged in re­cent White House de­bates as con­sis­tent voices of cau­tion in Iraq. Their shift re­flects the paucity of good op­tions and a re­luc­tance to suf­fer more com­bat deaths in a war in which Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are far from com­mit­ted and Iraqis have shown limited will to fight.

“Af­ter the past 12 years in the Mid­dle East, there is a real fo­cus by se­nior mil­i­tary lead­ers on un­der­stand­ing what the endgame

is,” said a mil­i­tary of­fi­cial, “and ask­ing the ques­tion, ‘ To what end are we do­ing this?’ ”

The mil­i­tary’s re­luc­tance be­lies a preva­lent nar­ra­tive in Wash­ing­ton of a cau­tious pres­i­dent hold­ing back his ag­gres­sive gen­er­als. The Pen­tagon’s po­si­tion was most ev­i­dent in the White House de­bates af­ter the sur­pris­ing retreat of Iraqi army and po­lice in Ra­madi last month.

In the days that fol­lowed, Obama as­sem­bled his na­tional se­cu­rity team to fix a strat­egy that ap­peared to be founder­ing.

Obama’s top gen­er­als pre­sented a range of op­tions, in­clud­ing one dubbed “higher risk” that would have em­bed­ded U.S. ad­vis­ers in Iraqi com­bat units to di­rect airstrikes from U.S. fighter jets. The plan also would have em­ployed Apache attack he­li­copters, which are lethal in ur­ban com­bat but vul­ner­a­ble to en­emy ground fire.

The higher-risk op­tion rep­re­sented a ma­jor change inthe White House’s strat­egy, which puts a heavy bur­den on the Iraqis to take the lead in the fight against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and keeps Amer­i­cans away from the front lines.

Some se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cials ar­gued that the front-line Amer­i­can spot­ters and attack he­li­copters would pro­vide crit­i­cal help to Iraq’s Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi, whom the ad­min­is­tra­tion strongly backs. With­out some quick bat­tle­field vic­to­ries, th­ese of­fi­cials ar­gued, Abadi would be un­der heavy pres­sure to rely more on Shi­ite Iran, which has cast it­self as Iraq’s only ef­fec­tive part­ner in a largely sec­tar­ian war with the Sun­nidom­i­nated Is­lamic State.

But the pres­i­dent’s top mil­i­tary com­man­ders ar­gued against a change in strat­egy that would re­duce the onus on Iraqi forces and pull U.S. troops deeper into the war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, like other mil­i­tary of­fi­cials doubted that the gains from us­ing em­bed­ded ad­vis­ers and attack he­li­copters were worth the pos­si­ble cost in Amer­i­can blood, said sev­eral U.S. of­fi­cials familiar with his po­si­tion.

In­stead, he coun­seled pa­tience, main­tain­ing that the U.S.-led air cam­paign was weak­en­ing the Is­lamic State and that a force of Sunni tribal fighters would need to be trained and armed to hold the bat­tle­field gains.

Gen. Lloyd Austin III, whoo­ver­sees U.S. forces in the Mid­dle East and de­vel­oped the higher-risk op­tion, con­ceded that the ground spot­ters and he­li­copters could make U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions more lethal, but he also said they weren’t needed in Iraq right now, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton B. Carter sim­i­larly ar­gued that ground spot­ters weren’t es­sen­tial to bol­ster an air cam­paign that was “go­ing well,” said a se­nior de­fense of­fi­cial, who, like oth­ers, spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions.

The pres­i­dent ul­ti­mately de­cided to send about 450 Amer­i­can ad­vis­ers to a se­cure mil­i­tary base out­side the Is­lamic State­con­trolled city of Ra­madi. The ad­vis­ers will meet with Sunni sheiks in the area in an ef­fort to mo­bi­lize po­ten­tially train thou­sands of tribal fighters. They will also pro­vide ad­vice and in­tel­li­gence to the Iraqi head­quar­ters over­see­ing the fight for Ra­madi. But they will not ac­com­pany Iraqi troops on com­bat mis­sions, as some State Depart­ment of­fi­cials ar­gued was es­sen­tial if the Iraqis were go­ing to re­take Ra­madi in the com­ing weeks.

The State Depart­ment has “a more­op­ti­mistic view of the op­por­tu­ni­ties there than the mil­i­tary does,” a U.S. of­fi­cial said.

A se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cial de­scribed the mil­i­tary’s ob­jec­tions to the higher-risk op­tions in starker terms: “We have be­come very sen­si­tized to the idea that we don’t wantto risk lives and limbs if there isn’t a high prob­a­bil­ity of a pay­off,” said the of­fi­cial. “Our cal­cu­lus is dif­fer­ent.”

Obama didn’t fore­close riskier op­tions that would push U.S. ad­vis­ers closer to the front lines and into com­bat, se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials said. If con­di­tions wors­ened, the pres­i­dent in­di­cated, he would be open to us­ing ground spot­ters or attack he­li­copters. The pres­i­dent also said that he would re­visit the riskier cour­ses if they were needed to help Iraqi forces achieve a ma­jor break­through, such as a victory in the fight to re­take Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city, from the Is­lamic State, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

One big chal­lenge with em­bed­ding com­bat ad­vis­ers is find­ing front-line Iraqi units that U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders trust enough to keep the Amer­i­cans rel­a­tively safe, a se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cial in Iraq said.

The mil­i­tary’s un­will­ing­ness to press for more re­sources could un­der­cut calls from some Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, such as for­mer Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.), Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (S.C.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who have pressed for send­ing more U.S. troops to fight Is­lamic State mil­iand tants.

The mil­i­tary’s re­luc­tance also rep­re­sents a shift in mind-set for a force that, while not monolithic in opin­ion, has in re­cent years pressed for a more ag­gres­sive mil­i­tary re­sponse in the wake of bat­tle­field set­backs.

Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal, for in­stance, in 2009 said he needed as many as 40,000 new troops to push back the Tal­iban and train Afghan forces. Af­ter weeks of con­tentious de­bate, Obama agreed to send 30,000 troops, but in a sign of his un­ease with the mil­i­tary’s am­bi­tious plans, the pres­i­dent put a firm time limit on how long they could stay.

“In the Afghan surge, the mil­i­tary be­lieved the mission could be ac­com­plished and wanted more forces to buy down risk,” said Michele Flournoy, a for­mer top of­fi­cial in the Pen­tagon and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity.

To­day in Iraq, ex­pec­ta­tions are far lower and po­lit­i­cal sup­port for the mission among law­mak­ers, the White House and the Amer­i­can peo­ple is far more ten­u­ous. The goal in Iraq, Flournoy said, “is to re­take lost ter­ri­tory.”

The mil­i­tary’s 12years of ex­pe­ri­ence in Iraq, mean­while, have im­bued it with an abid­ing wari­ness of be­ing drawn too deeply into the coun­try’s in­ter­nal eth­nic and sec­tar­ian wars. That in­stinct is shared by the team of se­nior mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers Obama has as­sem­bled. “Ev­ery sin­gle one of th­ese guys has signed toomany let­ters to too many par­ents,” said Maren Leed, a for­mer se­nior ad­viser to the Army chief of staff in the Pen­tagon who is now at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. “They’ve had their hearts bro­ken and watched a lot of oth­ers get their hearts bro­ken.”

Austin, who over­saw all U.S. troops in Iraq prior to the U.S. with­drawal in De­cem­ber 2011, pressed for keep­ing as many as 17,000 Amer­i­can troops in the coun­try to train and ad­vise Iraqi forces. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion whit­tled that num­ber down to fewer than 5,000 troops, but it couldn’t reach an agree­ment with the Iraqi gov­ern­ment that would al­low the troops to stay.

What fol­lowed was a slow de­te­ri­o­ra­tion and col­lapse of the Iraqi and Army and po­lice forces that U.S. com­man­ders had built at tremen­dous cost.

Dempsey lost 133 troops when he com­manded U.S. troops in Bagh­dad in 2003-2004. He re­turned to the coun­try one year later to com­mand the Iraqi army and po­lice train­ing ef­fort from 2005 to 2007. Like many U.S. com­man­ders, he hoped that the Iraqi forces, though far from per­fect, could sur­vive on their own af­ter U.S. troops left in 2011.

“What did the U.S. mil­i­tary learn from the last decade of sup­port to the Iraqi army?” asked Emma Sky, au­thor of “The Un­rav­el­ing,” who spent four years in Iraq as a se­nior ad­viser to the U.S. mil­i­tary. “We can give the Iraqi army lots of equip­ment and train­ing, but we can­not ad­dress the psy­chol­ogy and morale of the force and its will­ing­ness to fight.”


Iraqi, U.S. and Span­ish sol­diers trainMay 27 near Bagh­dad. An idea to em­bed U.S. aides in Iraqi com­bat units was re­sisted by mil­i­tary brass.


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