There’s been a lot of reporting that U.S. Marines at Al-Asad air base in Anbar Province came under fire from Islamic State fighters in the last 24 hours. The U.S. military has assured us that, technically, the Marines didn’t come under fire. Skeptical bloggers have passed on reports that Marines did, in fact, take fire, and have even taken casualties.
A relatively independent source, the Danish press – which is reporting on a detachment of Danish troops also present at Al-Asad – confirms the statements of U.S. military spokesmen. You can form your own opinion, but I don’t see a motive for the Danish press to cover for Obama, if U.S. or other coalition personnel actually took fire in the recent attacks.
That said, it’s framing the problem the wrong way to accept that things are OK as long as U.S. or other coalition troops have not taken direct hits. If we focus on that, we’re boresighted on the trees.
The forest is the real issue here. The “forest” perspective is that our troops (and contractors) at Al-Asad are in an incredibly dangerous situation now. The reason that tactical fire near or on the base has become an issue in the last couple of days is that Islamic State has taken over the town of Al-Baghdadi, directly adjacent to the air base.
Islamic State, or IS, has been working to take over Al-Baghdadi for the last few months. IS’s terrorist fighters were hard at work trying to take Al-Baghdadi down in December, when I wrote about reports indicating that American security contractors were fighting outside the base, alongside Iraqi forces, in the conflict over the town. Map 2 shows where the Americans and Iraqis were fighting (Al Dolab) at the time.
It also shows how close Al-Baghdadi is to the air base. In the last 48 hours, IS has taken over Al-Baghdadi. From obscured positions in the town, right next to the Euphrates River, the distance to the air support facilities on the base – the runway, taxiways, storage bunkers – is 8-10 statute miles (13-16 km). The shortest distance to the perimeter fence is about 5 miles, and to the barracks area is 7-8 miles.
This means that, from obscured positions inside the town, IS can range Al-Asad with the tactical weapons it has, including Russian Grad rocket systems, and Russian and U.S. anti-tank missiles. (Map 3)
Although IS has already used tanks and APCs in the local fighting, the terrorists don’t want to have to make a frontal ground assault on the base while it’s fully operational. If IS wants to take down Al-Asad air base, it needs to be able to rain down hell on it from a distance, and take out the base’s main advantage, which is its ability to support aircraft operations. Rendering the air support part of the base inoperable is the way to do that.
IS now has the position to do that from, with its tree-covered urban location in the heart of Al-Baghdadi. Give IS a few weeks, and that location can be turned into a redoubt, with weaponry brought in and hidden in protected storage areas created on the fly.
Nothing IS can set up in Al-Baghdadi is invulnerable to U.S. forces. But that won’t matter if Al-Baghdadi isn’t attacked and retaken from IS. The question is whether that’s going to happen. Can Iraqi forces do it? Not in small numbers, and with only limited U.S. air support.
The 320 Marines on Al-Asad are not equipped to perform this mission, although they are infantrymen trained to it. Like all the other Americans deployed in Iraq, they are present in small numbers, in an adjunct role, and are not task-organized or equipped for combat. The Marines at Al-Asad aren’t even responsible for the security of the base (the Iraqis are, supported by contract security operatives), and are not equipped to fight the perimeter, nor are they involved in doing it. (This must be incredibly frustrating for them, if I know the Marines.)
The situation is unsustainable. It’s going to go bad at some point.
Islamic State has been positioned within 25-40 miles of other critical bases for some months now – the air base co-located with the Baghdad International Airport, and the base at Irbil in the north, near Mosul – but those bases are much harder nuts to crack. They are in heavily populated areas with prohibitive terrain: areas where IS would make itself vulnerable to uprisings from the locals, and would have to fight the best of the Iraqi or Kurdish troops, if it initiated attacks on the bases.
With Al-Asad, however, IS has put down a stake within tactical weapons range of a remote base with absolutely nothing around it. It would be relatively easy for U.S. and Iraqi forces to retake and garrison Al-Baghdadi if they launched an operation within a week. (I would add a security zone of at least 50 miles around.) But the stonewalling and hair-splitting we’re getting from U.S. military spokesmen tells me that we have no plans to do that.
The peril being created by Islamic State operations near Al-Asad was obvious two months ago, when IS didn’t hold as much local ground. It has gotten worse since December, and we have done nothing about it. Let’s just say it out loud: the military, under Obama’s Iraq policy, is not on top of this. It’s time to worry.
It is heart-wrenching to see the confidence our troops’ mere presence gives Iraqis. A BBC team visited Al-Asad in October, interviewing an Iraqi who said this:
Qais, the Al Bu Nimr fighter, said: “We know that Ain al-Asad will never fall while the Americans are here. They won’t let it happen.”
But, of course, we did just let it happen in Yemen, where – as our embassy fell – the Marines were ordered to render their weapons inoperable, just before fleeing ignominiously on civilian charter planes. At Al-Asad, there is every possibility the Marines won’t be able to do even that.