President Obama should be focused on destroying the Islamic State, not limiting U.S. engagement.
WITH THE campaign against the Islamic State faltering, President Obama has agreed to dispatch 450 more U.S. troops to an Iraqi air base near the provincial capital of Ramadi, which the terrorists captured last month. The underlying logic of his policy, however, hasn’t changed. Rather than aiming to destroy the Islamic State, Mr. Obama is focused on limiting U.S. engagement. The result is an underresourced effort that remains unlikely to succeed.
The new deployment, which will raise the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq to 3,550 at four different bases, would partly address some of the weaknesses in the U.S.-led campaign to date. Administration officials say U.S. trainers deployed to the Taqaddum base will work directly with Sunni tribesmen who are needed for any successful counterattack on Ramadi, but who have been marginalized — despite promises to the contrary — by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Officials say they also plan to speed up U.S. arms deliveries to the Sunni tribes and Kurdish militia, who remain outgunned by both the Islamic State and Iranian-sponsored militias.
Mr. Obama’s escalation nevertheless is most notable for excluding the steps that American and Iraqi commanders and military experts have been saying for a year are necessary to decisively reverse the Islamic State’s momentum. These include the deployment of U.S. advisers to frontline Iraqi units, along with spotters who can call in airstrikes, and an increase of close-in air support.
Such tactics worked during the U.S. “surge” in Iraq, and they allowed Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban government in 2001-2002. That they are not being used now, despite the Islamic State’s recent gains, seems to be explained only by Mr. Obama’s political resistance to reversing his decision to withdraw U.S. forces four years ago. A White House spokesman said Mr. Obama doesn’t want to do for Iraqis “what they can do for themselves.” But Iraqis cannot pilot attack helicopters or serve as tactical air controllers.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the new deployment might be the first of several to new bases around the country that would serve to prepare Iraqi army and tribal forces for assaults on other Islamic State-held areas. If that is Mr. Obama’s plan, then he should announce it and quickly move it forward. The incrementalism of his approach, with small and isolated steps taken too late, cannot change the momentum of the war. The Islamic State continues to attract thousands of recruits and to inspire new affiliates abroad because of the widespread perception that it is holding the United States at bay.
Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Salim al-Jibouri, pointed out during a visit to Washington lastweek that the longer the Islamic State holds cities such as Ramadi and Mosul — the latter of which fell a year ago last week — the more dangerous it becomes. “Time is on their side. We must move quickly,” he told us. Yet the scale of the administration’s deployments mean it may take months to recapture Ramadi, while an attack on Mosul — a city of 1 million— may be put off beyond this year. Mr. Jibouri said he believed Baghdad itself was vulnerable to an Islamic State attack because of the dispersal of government forces.
It is well within the capacity of the United States to destroy the Islamic State. But it won’t happen until the president makes that — and not the minimization of U.S. intervention — the objective that determines military deployments.