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Analysis Iraqi Freedom

Published on February 16th, 2015 | by Wayne White

4

The Growing Danger of Mission Creep against the Islamic State

by Wayne White

The self-anointed Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is trying to disrupt Coalition plans to move against it inside Iraq. However, hopes for major gains in the coming months by local Iraqi forces seem too optimistic. Ironically, US ground combat deployments potentially allowed in the Obama administration’s draft Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) might, in fact, reduce more meaningful regional Coalition participation. All this means a higher risk of US mission creep.

IS recently abandoned over 100 villages around Kobani and hard-fought gains around Aleppo, apparently to free up more fighters for use in Iraq. As noted earlier, with a vast perimeter to defend, IS leaders in Raqqa must make hard choices about where to place their strongest forces. IS cannot successfully defend its borders everywhere at once.

IS executed this pivot probably because of Indications about impending Iraqi offensive actions. General John Allen, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition, said on February 9 that Iraqi forces would “begin the ground offensive to take back Iraq” in the weeks ahead. Iraqi ambassador to the US Lukman Faily remarked on February 12 that this would be the decisive year for retaking major cities from IS, especially Mosul.

Acting on the old adage that the “best defense is a good offence,” IS conducted a string of limited attacks across Iraq over the last week meant to throw Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq off balance. Although its gains were not significant, IS appears to have achieved some success in rattling local forces.

Threat of Escalation at al-Asad

As I recently warned, stationing US personnel and assets at al-Asad Airbase in Iraq (mostly surrounded by IS-held territory) was very risky. The shield between 400 American trainers and IS forces is composed of Iraqi police and troops, both with an iffy track record against determined IS assaults. The fall of the nearby town of al-Baghdadi and a direct IS assault on al-Asad late last week were hardly surprising given the isolation of these somewhat weakly held locales.

The Iraqis so far have held al-Asad Airbase, but at great cost against a relatively small IS assault force. In the face of a much larger IS force all bets are off, with the very real possibility of a direct American face-off on the ground with IS. Even now, nearby IS forces could bombard al-Asad with weapons such as heavy mortars.

Official Washington must be concerned about potential American battle casualties or IS seizure of US prisoners at al-Asad. During the prolonged ordeal over Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, London postponed the deployment to Iraq of several hundred UK military trainers from an elite unit by several months until after the May 7 general elections. Clearly, this shift was to put off the possibility of a British nightmare similar to Jordan’s.

There is, of course, a solution to the US problem at al-Asad: commit US combat troops to defend the trainers. This, however, would ominously mirror the scenario in which South Vietnamese troops failed to protect US advisors and assets at an airbase and a barracks facility this month 50 years ago, which led to the deployment of the first US combat units to Vietnam on March 8, 1965.

AUMF Dangerously Broad

President Obama has sent to Congress a draft AUMF that any administration could drive a truck (or tank) through. The prohibition against “enduring offensive ground operations” is the main bone of contention.

Could a deployment less than “enduring” last as long as a year? “Defensive” ground operations might occur in response to most anything, not just troubling situations like the one at al-Asad. Triggers might include a retaliatory “defensive” response to an IS-inspired attack inside the United States, a US counterthrust to parry a successful IS ground attack against Iraqi forces or Kurds, and so on.

Obama personally seems resistant to substantial US military ground operations. In his February 11 letter to Congress, he referred to “limited” operations such as using elite forces for rescue missions, against the IS leadership, or for intelligence gathering. Yet, he defined IS as a “threat…to U.S. national security” and repeats his objective of IS’s ultimate “defeat.” He emphasized that “local forces” should do the military heavy lifting, but what if sufficient coalition ground forces don’t show up or Iraqi forces fail to shape up?

Would US Combat Troops Energize Allies?

Political hawks, as well as many serving and former military officers, continue to urge that US troops assume a far more prominent ground combat role than even that sought by the administration. Former General Anthony Zinni told CNN on February 13 that US combat troops robustly taking the field against IS would cause the coalition—especially regional allies—to “gather round” and send their own ground forces off to war.

Nonetheless, the opposite is more likely. Iraqi security forces and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, which are already somewhat squeamish about tackling IS full-bore, could seek to defer to any crack US combat troops that wade into the fray in any numbers. The same goes for many other regional allies. Nonetheless, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on February 6 that not only will Jordan commit ground troops, but “Saudi Arabia is on board, everybody’s on board.”

Last week, however, a Jordanian military source ruled out ground troops, aside from some special forces, and its foreign minister evaded a definitive answer earlier this month. Moreover, in consultations with politicians like Graham (relatively inexperienced in Middle East diplomacy), regional officials typically sound encouraging while avoiding firm guarantees. I recall an incident while serving with the State Department when a Clinton administration political appointee thought a GCC government had agreed to a major accord based on such chit-chat when such was not the case at all.

The Credibility of Iraqi Forces

Meanwhile, Baghdad is still stumbling in its efforts against IS. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to dispel the impression among Sunni Arabs that they remain a shunned, menaced minority have borne little fruit. The pleas for Iraqi government arms and support by Sunni Arab tribes in al-Anbar Governate still resisting IS largely go unanswered. Yet, these few tribes control more of al-Anbar than Iraqi Army garrisons. Back in Baghdad, a moderate Sunni Arab tribal leader who had complained to Human Rights Watch about anti-Sunni Arab crimes was murdered, along with his son, on February 14, apparently by Shi’a militiamen.

An ongoing wave of anti-Sunni Arab atrocities by Iraqi security forces greatly undermines the credibility of Baghdad’s outreach. Abadi launched a probe this month into the murder at the government’s Anbar Operations Command of two prominent members of a Sunni Arab tribe who’d been seized by Iraq soldiers and Shi’a militiamen. Shi’a militia are still needed most everywhere to fill out the ranks of the depleted Iraqi army, and the army too is mostly Shi’a.

Yesterday, Amnesty International announced that in areas “liberated” from IS, Shi’a militiamen continue executing, kidnapping, or expelling Sunni Arabs. And Shi’a militias are not the only culprits. Iraqi Kurdish forces have been active in evicting Sunni Arabs from liberated towns. And Yazidis fighting alongside the Kurds reportedly killed 21 Sunni Arabs late last month and engaged in widespread looting in retaliation for Yazidi dead found in areas taken back from IS around Sinjar.

Unless this mayhem linked to Iraqi or Kurdish forces can be brought under control, Iraqi military operations planned for this year will be bloody slugfests. Many Sunni Arabs are hardly thrilled about IS. But terrified of “liberation” Iraqi-style, they continue to fight alongside IS. Under such circumstances, hopes for major Iraqi successes seem delusional.

Photo: Air Force One on a visit to al-Asad Airbase in 2007

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4 Responses to The Growing Danger of Mission Creep against the Islamic State

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  1. avatar Norman says:

    The last paragraph speaks volumes. Perhaps now is the time for a Sunni-Shi’a rapprochement, though I wouldn’t hold my breath or even bet anothers farm on it happening. Of course, this may be laying the groundwork for an Invasion of Iran by the U.S. prodded on by the Netanyahoo and his U.S.Congress peanut gallery. How stupid that will be and the outcome, more American deaths. Does anyone believe that the American public will just go along with the idiocy?

  2. avatar RonHawk says:

    It can be argued that our entire involvement in the Middle East was based on mission creep that itself started with the British Empire’s mission creep after WWI.

  3. avatar Vixpix1 says:

    The lesson of Korea was that if the people of a foreign country will fight alongside American troops, we can win, and the lesson of Viet Nam was that when the people are not on our side, we can’t win. It does not matter how much we want it, and it does not matter how detestable ISIS has shown itself to be. This is the Arab world, and after decades of pushing countries around, and supporting dictatorial kings and emirs, we have no reliable allies. The Kurds are our friends, but they’re not all that many of them, and every time we try to help them, we anger the Turks. Aside from them, we have Sunni and Shia, and they just want to kill each other, which is a situation our invasion of Iraq made much worse. We’re trying to train an Iraqi army, with little to no success. We spent over a decade trying to train an Afghan army, and we’re having to slow down our withdrawal because their army is useless. Our supposed best friend in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, and not only were 19 of the 20 9/11 attackers Saudis, the Saudis finance much of the jihadi movement.

    Despite our geopolitical hubris, there are no victories for us over there. We can try to defend those few groups who are genuinely on our side, and let the rest of the Arab world settle its own craziness. We’ve lost in Lebanon,Libya, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s cost us men and money, and maybe it’s time to stop digging.

  4. avatar Monty Ahwazi says:

    We are spending millions of $$ at the CIA for the purpose of gathering intelligence, to assist our military in protecting this country and also to take out specific targets of interest when justified. Now I can’t believe that the CIA can not find anyone or small group in Iraq to take out the leader of ISIS, Al-Baghdadi, by paying him/them a small fee???


About the Author

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Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



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