President Obama’s authorization of air strikes in Iraq has triggered unease among high-level former U.S. officials who say the administration still lacks a coherent strategy for beating back the growing al Qaeda-inspired militancy in the war-torn nation.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik told The Washington Times that the strikes Friday against artillery and mortar positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were “necessary but not sufficient” to seriously confront threat now posed to the region and to the wider world.
“There needs to be be a more comprehensive strategy rooted in the security interests of the United States,” said Gen. Dubik, who oversaw the training of he Iraqi army during the latter part of the U.S. mission that ended in 2011. “And the key security problem facing the U.S. is the creation there of an Islamic state, basically a sanctuary for terrorists — the very sanctuary that we’ve bee fighting for 13 years now to prevent.”
Mr. Obama asserted Thursday that the strikes were part of a “broader strategy that empowers Iraqis” to fight the militants on their own, but other military experts shared Gen. Dubik’s concerns.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, who headed the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command during the early 2000s and later served as the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said that despite the recent deployment of a small number of U.S. “advisers” to Iraq, the administration has failed to outline how Iraqi forces will be empowered.
The move to begin bombing without a plan for what comes next “shows a lack of strategic vision,” Gen. Dailey said, adding that the administration is likely facing pushback from some of its own senior military advisers.
“This looks like something that’s been dreamed up inside the White House and not dreamed up at U.S. Central Command,” he said.
In a public address on Thursday night, President Obama went to lengths to frame his decision in humanitarian terms, driven by a need to deliver supplies to some 40,000 ethnic Iraqi Yazidis trapped by Islamic State fighters in the Sinjar Mountain area roughly 50 miles west of Mosul.
The area around the mountain is controlled by extremists, who have also made advances on the Kurdish Iraqi city of Erbil during recent days.
Senior White House aides have argued that the strikes were also a precautionary measure to protect U.S. citizens currently in Erbil.
Dozens of officials, mainly from the Pentagon, have been sent to the city over the past month to “assess” ways Washington might bolster Kurdish forces attempting to protect the area from ISIL extremists.
Since President Obama won the White House six years ago on promises to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq, aides have been quick to insist that no new U.S. troop deployment is being considered in Iraq.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that Mr. Obama remains “determined” to not send ground troops, and that the ongoing mission is narrowly defined and limited in scope.
And some former military officials have said that the mission could succeed from a humanitarian standpoint.
Retired Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command between 2002 and 2006, took part in a similar operation in Iraq 1991, known as Operation Provide Comfort.
The Pentagon was able to conduct that operation, delivering humanitarian aid to Kurds fleeing northern Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War, without putting a single U.S. soldier on the ground, the general said. Air cover, he said, was critical.
“Deciding to go in and drop food is not that simple,” he said. “You have to have all the backup support capability to do that. And it’s not necessarily people on the ground in this case. It’s an air mission.”
“Air power always has to be augmented with other forms of engagement, whether it’s the evacuation of folks through a secure corridor set up by troops on the ground, or some sort of coalition of troops being set up to achieve that, whether they are Kurdish forces, Turkish forces or Iraqi military forces, or some combination of the three,” argued Gen. Dailey.
Gen. Dubik went further, asserting that the mission will struggle until the Obama administration clearly maps out a plan to rebuild Iraq’s military, which largely dissolved in northern Iraq in the face of an extremist surge in June.
Despite the president’s resistance to U.S. troops in Iraq, there are already about 800 U.S. military personnel manning two joint operation centers in Baghdad and the Kurdish city of Erbil.
The catch, said Gen. Dubik, is that their mission is so far ill-defined.
“At this point all that the U.S. advisers are doing is an ‘assessment.’ But they shouldn’t take this long to do an assessment,” he said. “There needs to be a concerted counterterrorism campaign that can be conducted by the Iraqis, with U.S. officials simultaneously helping to organize a counter-offensive against the extremists.”
What’s happening instead, he said, is that the White House is pursuing a “pin-prick” approach, focusing on the humanitarian crisis without seriously confronting wider extremist threat.
Some analysts were even more critical of the administration on Friday.
What’s been announced by the White House so far is “not a strategy,” said Bill Roggio, a counterterrorism analyst who edits The Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “A strategy isn’t, ‘Well, we’ll wait to see if they march on Erbil, or we’ll drop some humanitarian aid and see what the Islamic State does and then maybe we’ll target them.”
Mr. Roggio recommends “more direct U.S. involvement” than the air missions so far.
“It probably has to include some U.S. ground forces actively engaging ISIL,” he said. “Without that, anything you’re doing is just not fully dealing with the Islamic State.”
“Remember,” added Mr. Roggio, “it took basically two years of concurrent military operations during the late-2000s, with 130,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, along with a then-growing Iraqi military force to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq at the time.”
“Now, despite the administration’s argument that ISIL is brittle — that everyone hates them and they’ll fall apart on their own eventually — I would argue that they’re actually far more formidable right now than al Qaeda in Iraq was in 2006 and 2007.”
“But the might of the U.S. military is not there to help now,” he said. “So, how do we now think that some humanitarian drops and a few air strikes are going to beat these guys back?”
— Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.