Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Thanks, Captain Obvious

President Obama said we don't have a complete strategy to train Iraqis to defeat ISIL. The real problem is that we don't have a complete war strategy yet.

Isn't this reassuring?

President Barack Obama, reprising a phrase that caused uproar in Washington last year, said on Monday the United States does not yet have a "complete strategy" for training Iraqi security forces to reconquer territory seized by Islamic State fighters.

It's worse than that. We don't have a complete strategy, notwithstanding being 9 months into our three-year plan for victory. Key decisions have not been made by the White House.

I've defended the broad outline of our strategy to defeat ISIL: win in Iraq; build up non-jihadi resistance in Syria while hitting ISIL in Syria from the air to degrade their ability to affect the fight in Iraq; then win in Syria (Win, Build, Win).

Defending our deteriorating victory in Iraq by destroying ISIL is the priority.

And fighting ISIL in Syria now could just help Assad win--so we need an alternative to Assad to fill the vacuum when ISIL is defeated there.

But aside from this broad approval of our emphasis, I have problems.

Most basically, we have to treat Assad as an enemy who must be defeated and not use ISIL as an excuse to save a regime responsible for lots of American deaths in Iraq.

Even more important, we have to treat Iran as an enemy that is trying to carve out a Hezbollah-within-Lebanon-like sphere of influence in Iraq, rather than as an anti-ISIL ally.

I have no problem with using pro-Iran militias as cannon fodder against ISIL--two birds with one stone, and all that. But we must be prepared to eject this influence once their usefulness ends.

A step down, I think that Anbar should be the main front rather than Mosul. The Kurds are holding their own up there. And they seem uninterested--because they don't want to suffer heavy casualties for a city that Iraq's central government will control--in being the northern prong of an assault into Mosul, anyway.

In addition, if we want to halt Iraqi collapses, encourage Sunni Arabs to actively help the Baghdad government in a new Awakening, and protect Baghdad from constant bombing attacks, we need to push ISIL back and regain territory in eastern Anbar first, and then deeper into the province to defeat ISIL.

Further, we need to put our special forces into the fight with both direct action against ISIL and in the role of supporting reliable Iraqi units in the field to provide rapid air support when in contact with the enemy.

The most basic need is for core mobile forces that can spearhead offensives into ISIL-held territory.

In one sense, I won't complain about our training effort in Iraq. We are training Iraqi units but not feeding them piecemeal into the front to hold the line:

The U.S. training program has graduated about 7,200 soldiers, with another 3,200 in training. As of last week, none had been deployed on the battlefield. Iraqi and U.S. officials said their deployment was imminent, and would be one gauge of the program's success.

Italy has begun a training program for Iraqi police, which in some provinces is plagued by the same corruption and command problems as the army. The federal police, however, is a strong strike force showing success on front lines with special forces and Shiite militias in recent battles.

Instead, we are holding the units back until we have enough for an offensive. This is good--as long as the front generally holds until we stage that offensive. In that case, it actually would be possible to describe the loss of Ramadi as a mere "tactical" defeat that doesn't affect the big picture.

If we get to that offensive and succeed. But there is a problem of granting an enemy so much time until we unleash the killing blow--the enemy might use it to win more victories that prevent us from carrying out the long planned "final offensive."

I've long wanted core forces to spearhead the Iraqi offensives to allow merely adequate Iraqi forces to hold the ground taken. ISIL isn't that large, so the core forces of competent troops don't have to be that large.

Look at what we did in Afghanistan in 2001 and what the French did in Mali in 2013 with small but good and mobile forces to defeat larger amounts of jihadis.

If Nigeria, despite their ample problems with their own troops, with foreign forces that provided those core forces could drive back Boko Haram jihadis, Iraqis certainly can.

Heck, even the Russians manage to do this with at least minimal success with their fairly inept hand-puppet Donbas allies. Russia spearheads the assaults with special forces and regular mobile forces, with the Russian-led locals (and imported volunteers and mercenaries) manning the front when it is moved forward.

Iraq can provide some of these core force troops. They do have some decent forces. And if we train more troops--and directly advise and support them--Iraq can have more.

Remember (back to that third article), Iraqi troops will fight if led by officers who are trusted not to abandon them:

[An Iraqi soldier] and many of his trainees say they still can't shake the bitter aftertaste of previous fights—some in northern Mosul a year ago, others in Anbar province, where they said they were left without ammunition or altogether abandoned by their commanders.

Their lingering hostility reflects a widespread mistrust of military leadership among Iraqi troops, one of a host of problems hampering U.S.-backed efforts by Iraq's central government to revive the security forces after a meltdown last year as Islamic State advanced.

American forces with them will help provide that confidence to Iraqi troops that they will get the support they need to fight and win.

The Kurds can provide some--as long as we don't push them to spearhead attacks into Mosul where they'd suffer heavy casualties.

I also hope the Jordanians could provide a core force to attack ISIL from the western front of Anbar. And after their captured pilot was burned to death, I figured the chances of them providing this force went up.

We could also hire mercenary units to stiffen Iraqi brigades. It would be nice to have an entire contract brigade, but those don't seem to exist. Could we have units as large as battalions? Or would company-sized units be the limit?

I will say in defense of our long-telegraphed offensive that it is important that the first big Iraqi offensive works. After many defeats at the hands of ISIL, a debacle on the offensive could cripple Iraq morale and seriously undermine our ability to defeat ISIL.

We Americans may mock Britain's General Montgomery for his plodding style, but he was not wrong in knowing that after being beaten in North Africa by Rommel time and again, the el Alamein counter-offensive in 1942 had to work. Britain couldn't afford to be beaten again.

It may be that the Iraqis simply can't carry out a rapid advance deep into enemy territory as we did or the French did--or even the Nigerians did, after a fashion. Perhaps it has to be a plodding and highly controlled offensive that crushes ISIL with precision firepower ahead of a rolling offensive.

As I've noted, you go to war with the army you have and not the army you wish you had. It is surely good that we don't have the Saddam army as an enemy, but the Iraqi army we have as an ally isn't up to the task yet. It was good enough in 2010-2011, but that train has left the station.

And you go to war with the leader you have who has to make the decisions to fight the war and not the leader you wish you had.

UPDATE: As I started out this post, I said the president claimed that we don't have a complete strategy to train Iraqis. This video makes it clear this is what he is talking about.

So it is really annoying that so many media conservatives are spinning this as the president saying we don't have a complete strategy to defeat ISIL. That's not what the president said. I know that left-leaning outlets do this all the time against Republicans, but it is no excuse for Fox News to do it to President Obama.

It is true that our complete strategy has serious flaws and needs to be corrected, as I outline above. But the president did not say we don't have a complete strategy to defeat ISIL.

The reality is bad enough without taking the president's words out of context, okay?

UPDATE: We're addressing two of my issues by dispatching 450 more advisors and trainers to Iraq.

These troops will help Iraqi forces facing ISIL in Anbar and reach out to train and help Anbar Sunni Arabs to encourage a re-Awakening. Anbar does need more attention and the Sunni Arabs need us involved to forge trust to operate against ISIL

Note that as an additional force rather than a redirection of existing American forces, I take it we still have a Mosul-first outlook but don't want the Anbar/Baghdad flank to collapse while we aim north.

UPDATE: Here's a good quote from This Kind of War (the classic Korean War history) about the South Korean army:

Lynn Roberts had told Time that while the troops were excellent, the Koren officers' corps was not so hot. After all, in only eleven months staffs and commanders could not be made and trained, starting from scratch. Lynn Roberts, a professional soldier, also knew that soldiers are only as good as their officers make them. But that kind of attitude sounded un-American and was not popular in Washington, and there was no point in playing it up.

All the talk heard here of our past training efforts being pointless and a waste and proving future training is futile ignores that the real problem is an officer corps that deteriorated because of an emphasis on sectarian loyalty after we left.

UPDATE: But this kind of thinking doesn't help:

Iraq's former premier and current vice president, Nuri al-Maliki, blamed "conspiracies" Saturday for the loss of major cities to jihadists and said Baghdad should prioritise paramilitaries over the army to fight them.

He blamed politicians who opposed him and said a plot to weaken the army was hatched in a neighbouring country, but did not name names.

And he even said that denying the existence of a conspiracy amounts to one: "It is a conspiracy to say that there is not a conspiracy."

While our 2011 withdrawal had a role in creating this paranoid version of Maliki by exposing him to Iranian pressure, the ability to think his resort to sectarian loyalty as the major factor in officer selection is symptomatic of the entire region's problems--they're their own worst enemy and don't recognize that fact.