Trying to uproot and destroy the Islamic State’s army of terrorists in Iraq without American ground troops, as President Obama promoted Wednesday night, is doomed to failure, national security experts say.
At the least, the president needs to get ground troops closer to the fight, say some politicians and analysts. He should introduce special operations units to advise and join the Iraqis on hunt-and-kill missions against Islamic State leaders, as well as insert controllers to point out targets for warplanes.
“What a waste of time,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism official at the State Department. “We have not learned a thing in 80 years. [The Islamic State] is an army. The air power is not going to get the job done. Until you put troops in and kill these guys, they’re going to continue. They adjust to tactics. They meld into [the] civilian population.”
Militants in the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, are so embedded in Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and other Iraqi towns that it will take skilled land combatants to evict them, block by block, analysts say. Relying on the Iraqi security forces, even with front-line U.S. air power, is iffy at best, because Iraqi troops have conducted mass retreats rather than standing and fighting in major battlefield offensives.
Said an Army officer in the Pentagon: “Air power alone cannot win wars. [The president’s] stated strategy ignores this widely accepted truth. But with troops on the ground, in very small numbers, we can team with Kurds and Shia to support those ground forces in rapidly defeating ISIS.”
Retired Army Gen. John Keane, an architect of the 2007 troop surge carried out by Gen. David H. Petraeus, said that, at the least, the campaign needs American advisers closer to battle.
“If the U.S.-led coalition conducts a very aggressive air campaign that hits ISIS hard, sustained and simultaneous[ly] in Iraq and Syria, then ISIS will lose freedom of movement [and] initiative, and will become defensive,” Mr. Keane said. “However, defeat requires a ground counteroffensive to retake lost territory, led by the Iraqi army and the Free Syrian Army [and] supported by close air support.”
Mr. Obama Wednesday night refused to characterize as a “war” his new campaign to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. Instead, he likened it to long-term counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen against al Qaeda and its spinoffs. Those operations are largely conducted as drone missile strikes on terrorist leaders without an air campaign or ground troops.
Experts say defeating the terrorist army is more akin to what was required to beat its first iteration, al Qaeda in Iraq, which was founded in 2004 by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and subsequently led by the group’s current chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi cleric.
From 2007 to 2009 the U.S. assembled a synchronized force of air power, special operations troops, conventional warriors and ground intelligence operatives who expelled al Qaeda terrorists and insurgents street by street and town by town.
Except for air power, all the other components are missing in Mr. Obama’s plan, though the enemy has an even more formidable upper hand in terms of held ground, weapons and manpower.
Retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a top aide to Gen. Petraeus in Iraq, said what is needed is for Americans to embed with the Iraqis while they are fighting, not just while at training bases.
“I interrupted the speech that we are going to provide advisers and trainers to help forces and improve their capabilities, perhaps in training areas and bases away from the front line, but the advisers would not accompany the Iraqis’ formations into combat, and I think that’s a shortcoming of the strategy that he announced,” Mr. Mansoor said.
The Obama strategy might work, he said, if the Iraq army and Kurds train up to higher standards and Baghdad persuades Sunnis to turn on the Islamic State.
“I would be more confident that it would work if there were American advisers and special forces embedded in these formations to help them call in airstrikes and to stiffen them,” Mr. Mansoor added.
James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of “Innovation, Transformation and War” on the Iraq counterinsurgency, said air power-only strategy has been tried in the past.
“The developing states have periodically tried to police the politics on the ground by flying around above ground and dropping bombs on the people below, Mr. Russell said. “It’s not clear why we would be any more successful at this today than we have in the past. These were all economy of force missions that did little to settle the political disputes on the ground.”
Hawks in Congress have been careful, prodding Mr. Obama to do more, but not advocating a reintroduction of U.S. troops in significant numbers.
One of those hawks — Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services — said Thursday that “boots on the ground” does not mean a large occupying force.
Addressing an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. McKeon said the president “has inserted Special Forces, trainers, advisers and security forces. This is the right decision. But more can be done. It means empowering moderate Sunnis when and where we can and bolstering the nonsectarian forces in the Iraqi security forces. This will take troops. It will not take divisions.”
“There’s no way around it. American boots will be standing on sand. Americans will be shot at, and they will be shooting back. There’s simply no other way to do this,” he said.
Mr. Johnson, who worked in Iraq during the war, said even American air power, with U.S. special operations forces on the ground, had its limitations during the 2007 troop surge.
Though commandoes led by then-Army Gen. Stanley M. McChrystal captured al Qaeda operatives, interrogated them and used the intelligence to kill and capture more terrorists, the event that fundamentally changed the balance of power was the “Sunni Awakening.” Paid in cash, tribal leaders persuaded their followers to change sides and fight al Qaeda in Iraq or stand down entirely.
There is no sign yet of any such movement today, as the Islamic State controls much of Sunni Iraq, and Sunnis express strong distrust of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
“A big component of it was paying the sheiks so they have money to pay these guys who were previously being paid to plant bombs,” Mr. Johnson said.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, senior Democrat on the House Committee on Armed Services, said putting in too many ground troops would offend, not attract Sunnis.
“We have to find Sunni allies to push back against ISIS,” Mr. Smith said Thursday. “That’s the purpose of the train-and-equip mission. The idea that a U.S. military solution exists to this problem, I think, is wrong. We are a piece of helping the people in the region determine their own fate. If we come in over the top, trying to force them in one direction or another, that will simply drive more people into the arms of ISIS.”