Mis­placed pri­or­i­ties

Pres­i­dent Obama should be fo­cused on destroying the Is­lamic State, not lim­it­ing U.S. en­gage­ment.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

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.

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