Monday, October 20, 2014

Iraq First

Iraq is our priority front against ISIL. But don't worry that air strikes around Kobani in Syria indicate that we are being distracted because we have more than enough military power to deal with both. But do worry that it isn't apparent that Iraq is the main effort.

I've advocated acting against ISIL in Iraq first and in time set it out as a Win, Build, Win formula of winning in Iraq while building up the forces to win in Syria, and then winning in Syria.

Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, General Austin, verified that Iraq is our priority despite the high profile of the air campaign in Syria the last several weeks:

The intent of the expanded airstrikes is to degrade ISIL's capability and their ability to threaten U.S. interests and the interests of our partners.

More specifically, we are enabling the efforts of the Iraqis in their fight against ISIL, acknowledging that, in addition to halting ISIL's advance, the Iraqis must secure the border. They must regenerate and restructure their forces to ensure that they are able to provide for the sovereignty of their country going forward. And this represents our main focus right now -- enabling the efforts of the Iraqis. ...

Again, Iraq is our main effort and it has to be. And the things that we're doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq. And once the Iraqis are able to get a better handle on the situation inside of their country and regain control of their border, that will help to localize the problems a bit more.

And certainly, this will serve to restrict ISIL's freedom of movement and specifically, his ability to send reinforcements from Syria into Iraq. [emphasis added]

He also noted that the air attacks in Syria are going after military assets, command and control capabilities, and revenue-generating oil refineries:

With respect to the airstrikes, and together with our coalition partners, we are purposely and necessarily targeting very specific capabilities, again, with the intent to degrade the enemy's ability to command and control, to degrade his ability to project combat power, and to degrade his ability to sustain himself.

We've conducted precision strikes, for example, targeting ISIL's communications equipment and hardware, their command centers, and their vehicle parks, and tanks and Humvees which were stolen from the Iraqi army, as well as oil refineries which are now under ISIL's control.

Yes, we've recently seen an upsurge in activity in support of the Kurds around the Syrian city of Kobani. But that is important to kill ISIL members, deny them a victory that could be a recruiting tool, to gain the good will of Kurds who we need both in Iraq and Syria, and to prevent Turkish Kurd anger against the Turkish government for failing to intervene to save Kobani from developing into a very distracting revival of the Kurdish war inside Turkey.

But this doesn't represent a distraction from Iraq. The relative inaction in Iraq is not caused by air strikes committed to Syria. It is caused by too little activity in Iraq

Remember, that after Japan attacked our naval base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, we had a "Germany First" strategy since Germany was rightly judged the bigger threat.

Despite that declaration of a main effort in Europe, our initial combat was weighted against Japan since there was nobody else to carry out that effort to halt Japan's advances. Our ground forces didn't go into combat in Europe until the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, 11 months after the Pearl Harbor attack.

North Africa wasn't a particularly important objective in Europe, but attacking there did have the advantage of not confronting the toughest problem we'd have to face--the invasion of German-occupied France--and risk early defeat. And it got us involved in Europe so that pressure could be resisted to send resources to the Pacific where we were actively (and desperately) fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal and the seas and air around that island.

In the end we had the power to go on offense in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters rather than rely totally on a sequential effort (remember that Army troops from Europe were needed for the planned invasion of Japan prior to using atomic bombs to compel Japan to surrender).

Despite the weight of recent air attacks tilting to Syria, our air effort fits within my calls for air actions in Syria to be limited to attacks that support the primary fight in Iraq rather than attacks that strengthen Assad in Syria too much.

And General Austin actually provides needed news that the Iraqi ground forces are fighting, even as the situation in Anbar deteriorates under ISIL assault, and even as Austin couldn't say when the Iraqi military would visibly go on offense to roll back ISIL gains:

It's difficult to put -- to designate a specific point in time when they'll be able to do this. As you know, we're doing some things now. They are doing some things now to incrementally recapture ground that's been lost. In the north, we've seen the Kurdish security forces conduct an excellent operation on the Mosul Dam. They took back the port of -- the Rabiya port of entry. They are currently still operating, still pushing to recapture ground that has been lost.

We're seeing some of the same things in the south. About a week-and-a-half ago, you saw the 9th Division attack west to, you know, towards -- north of Karma, towards Ramadi, and link up with the 1st Division and open up a line of communication so that you're -- they're able to -- to provide logistical support to the forces that are out in Ramadi.

And so this morning, Iraqi time -- Iraq time, excuse me, you saw Iraqi security forces elements attack north from the Baghdad area up to Bayji And that that assault -- attack is ongoing as we speak. Their effort is to relieve the forces that have been defending Bayji for a period of time and make sure that they open a line of communications there as well.

So we're doing some things to -- to incrementally improve conditions. At the same time, we will begin to train and equip Iraqi security forces to regenerate some much-needed combat power. But it will take time.

Q: What about Mosul? Are they making any progress at all to retake Mosul?

GEN. AUSTIN: Mosul's going to be probably a much bigger effort. And again, it's going to -- we're going to need to regenerate a bit more combat power and do some more things to shape the environment a bit before we go after Mosul. I think Mosul will -- you heard the chairman describe it as potentially the decisive fight. Certainly, it will be a -- an important fight and a difficult fight.

You know, as you know, Bob, I was a corps commander in Iraq, and I was a force commander there as well. I've spent a lot of time in Mosul. It is difficult terrain. And -- and so, we want to make sure that when we take that on, that we have the adequate capability and we set the conditions right to -- to get things done.

We're building up local forces in Iraq that our air power can support. We have advisors in both the north with the Kurds who will be able to drive southwest and in the center with the Iraqis who will be able to drive west and north.

On the bright side, Iraq may finally be ready at the top to fight:

Iraqi lawmakers approved defence and interior ministers on Saturday, filling the key posts after weeks of delay as security forces battle Islamic State jihadists who hold swathes of the country. ...

Khaled al-Obaidi, a Sunni who was named defence minister, was a senior officer in the air force of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein who specialised in engineering. ...

The new interior minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, is a member of the Shiite bloc Badr.

Right now the high profile fight to resist ISIL in Kobani seems like the Guadalcanal of today. It's important to win there but it does not mean Syria is the main front. It just means that we aren't yet ready to go on offense in Iraq.

I worry that we need to have visible victories over ISIL sooner rather than later, and that we don't have the luxury of time to set the conditions just right.

Remember that the French in Mali wanted to wait until local and regional forces were ready to lead the offensive north into jihadi-held territory. But a jihadi offensive south compelled the French to use their small ground forces to launch the offensive lest the war be lost before the non-French forces were ready.

We may have to figuratively invade North Africa in Iraq to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that ISIL in Iraq is the main effort and that the end of the beginning is here even if the beginning of the end is years away.

UPDATE: Assuming our enemy gives us the time to set up the perfect killing blows, in a few months and then throughout next year, we will help Iraq retake their lost ground:

The United States and Iraq are drawing up a campaign plan for offensive operations by Iraqi ground forces to gradually reclaim towns and cities that have been occupied by the Islamic State, according to a senior administration official.

The plan, described as methodical and time-consuming, will not begin in earnest for several months and is designed to ensure that Iraqi forces­ do not overextend themselves before they are capable of taking and holding territory controlled by the militants.

ISIL will just sit patiently and wait to be destroyed, right?