- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

This time, when the terrorist insurgency is defeated in Iraq, Washington needs to keep American forces on the ground to sustain the victory, former war planners say.

The former military officers talk of a robust presence that would extend beyond mere advisers to include standby combat troops and air power.

The U.S. pulled out all warriors, advisers, intelligence assets and air power in December 2011, with President Obama saying America was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”

But by early to mid-2014, the Islamic State terrorist army was gobbling up northern and western Iraq. By the summer, Washington was rushing military trainers and advisers back to Baghdad, and in August launched an air war with hundreds of jet fighters and drones.

Veterans say that cannot happen again.

“Yes, we need a force to continue to train, assist, advise the Iraqi army,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, an architect of the 2007 troop surge credited with defeating al Qaeda in Iraq.

Over time, that terrorist network reconstituted inside war-ravaged Syria and re-emerged as the Islamic State, also called ISIL and ISIS.

Gen. Keane said the administration also needs to accelerate programs to sell to Iraq F-16 fighters and Apache attack choppers, and to train their pilots. Both aircraft can support ground troops directly with precision weapons. They also could interdict a repeat invasion by the Islamic State.

The Obama administration announced a deal more than a year ago to sell Baghdad 24 Apache AH-64s, complete with spare parts and a team of trainers — all costing about $6 billion. U.S.-piloted Apaches have been striking Islamic State targets in Iraq.

Gen. Keane said that, in a post-Islamic State Iraq, he would rotate an Army brigade combat team with a two-star general-commanded division headquarters, augmented by air support. Total force: about 7,000.

The battle to retake the city of Tikrit, which Baghdad announced Wednesday is now in government hands, showed the benefit of U.S. air power. Once the U.S. belatedly began airstrikes, the bombings helped pave the way for Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen to reach the center of the city.

U.S. Central Command said it targeted structures known to house Islamic State fighters.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Monday spoke to soldiers at Fort Drum, New York, which is sending a cadre of trainers and advisers to Iraq in an ongoing effort to rebuild the demoralized Iraqi Security Forces.

“Some of you, and this is important, will be going to Iraq,” Mr. Carter told the soldiers. “And there to train, advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces so that they can be the force that sustained the defeat of ISIL after ISIL is defeated, which it will be. But in order to sustain that defeat, we need a force on the ground, and that’s what you’ll be helping to create.”

His statement raises the question of whether the administration has decided that Iraqi troops will need coaching after defeating the Islamic State.

“Our focus now is on working with our partners to defeat ISIL,” Carl Woog, a spokesman for the defense secretary, told The Washington Times. “Not going to get out ahead of what kind of support we would provide to Iraq once that is achieved.”

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who heads U.S. Central Command, wanted to keep 23,000 troops in Iraq as a stabilizing and training force, but all combat troops left by December 2011 to meet an Obama campaign promise.

The George W. Bush administration negotiated that date, but former officials said the idea was to revisit the issue in early 2011 after Iraq held parliamentary elections. Washington and Baghdad discussed amending the status of forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, but no agreement was reached.

Once U.S. troops and their senior commanders left, Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, embarked on an anti-Sunni campaign that included firing a number of competent commanders. By the time the Sunni-dominated Islamic State invaded from Syria last year, it faced a broken army whose soldiers mostly ran.

Dakota Wood, a retired Marine Corps officer and former Central Command planner, said Washington needs a new approach of “semi-permanence” in Iraq to prevent another postwar breakdown.

A persistent U.S. force would prevent the rebirth of the Islamic State and provide a check on Iran, whose commanders are in Iraq and have proved instrumental in organizing Iraqi Shiite militiamen to fight the Islamic State.

“Currently, Iran sees that northern part of Iraq that is contiguous as an extension of Iran,” said Mr. Wood, an analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “It doesn’t really view Iraq as a separate sovereign entity.”

Mr. Wood recommends that the U.S. send in a combat brigade whose overt mission would be to train and advise.

“Its implied mission is to maintain a U.S. presence in the region,” he said. “We saw what happened when we withdrew and the evils of everybody’s nature came out.”

A force would be a “tangible commitment of U.S. involvement in that region. It shows U.S. influence. U.S. semi-permanence. U.S. desire to remain involved and not walk away. And it keeps bad actors from doing bad things,” Mr. Wood said.

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