The State Department has asked the Pentagon for more troops to provide security to U.S. facilities in Iraq. There are some 850 U.S. troops in Iraq at the moment, including a detachment of 50 Marines from Bahrain bolstering security for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Other troops are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish forces as advisors, and are providing intelligence support and ground liaison for air strikes.
The new request is reportedly for some 300 troops to beef up security for the embassy and for a U.S. facility at the international airport in Baghdad.
The military is said to be “considering” the request.
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The problem with this request is the same problem posed by each of the previous decisions in 2014 to deploy a few more troops to Iraq. It’s being done piecemeal, in a reactionary manner, and for nothing beyond the most minimal, defensive purposes.
What we’re ending up with is not a concentration of force, or a proactive strategy to achieve a clear end-state, but a patchwork quilt of small, widely dispersed detachments – each of which could become vulnerable very quickly to the kind of attack ISIS is well capable of bringing off.
The U.S. forces now in Iraq are subject to tides of battle they cannot control. The American chain of command has consciously decided not to try to gain control of them, with initiative and focused action, but to react to them in an adjunct role. A weak, internally divided partner government has the lead, rather than the United States. And the mission for U.S. forces is vague but narrowly defensive, a combination that effectively inhibits adaptation and stifles tactical initiative.
This pattern mimics that of the worst foreign-intervention disasters Americans can remember from the last half century: the slow torture of the escalation in Vietnam in the Kennedy and Johnson years; the 241 Americans in arms – 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and 3 Army soldiers – killed in the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983; the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, in which 18 soldiers were killed.
Military force is not a magic pill. Merely deploying it is not a strategy. Its presence is not a substitute for political will. In fact, it is easily possible to deploy it with such poorly conceived instructions that it goes in with a target painted on its back, increasingly at risk of becoming a political liability rather than an asset. We are far too close to doing that in Iraq.
It is true, as others have argued, that now is the time to crush ISIS. There is a way to do it, on American terms. We do not need to conclude cynical alliances to achieve the goal. We would need to change our national priorities, something many Americans lack the vision to see is possible: we would have to preempt every penny of Barack Obama’s spending binge on his cronies and his political base, and seize back control of our national finances, for starters. China and Russia aren’t going to lend us the money to defeat ISIS on American terms.
But that doesn’t mean the enterprise would be impossible. It means the conditions we have today are unfavorable for it. Equally important is the fact that if we don’t change those conditions, we cannot use military force effectively. Unless his pattern of action changes, Obama can’t lead us in an effective intervention against ISIS.
We can expect to pay a high price for being out of position to deal preemptively with ISIS. That said, deploying a few troops here and a few troops there is not helping us to avert an ISIS-caused security disaster. Sending troops on that basis isn’t a way of dealing with ISIS. The media talk as if it is, but it isn’t. The people are going to have to graduate from national-security kindergarten and understand that.
“Troops” are not a form of bug spray against national security threats. You can’t just aim and push a button. “Troops” require a properly conceived mission, adequate numbers, effective rules of engagement and operational conditions, and above all, political will backing them up. None of these essentials is materializing as troops dribble slowly into Iraq.
Up to now, circumstances have not fully converged to bring about a major catastrophe for U.S. forces in the increasingly odd and overstretched operations ordered by Obama. Even where U.S. force levels have been inadequate and the mission framed weakly, as in Libya in 2011, the enemies in the region have themselves lacked strategic momentum or concentration of force.
But ISIS is more likely to change that than any enemy we have faced for a long time. The disaster in Benghazi in September 2012 exposed the sloppy, ill-prepared basis on which the Obama administration has been willing to use Americans in dangerous conditions overseas – and merely being a military force will not magically harden “troops” against a similar kind of peril, if they are sent in prepared for nothing more than a “fair,” localized, defensive fight. It’s likely instead to turn them into sitting ducks.