Here’s Why Obama Must Send More Troops to Fight ISIL

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Is this what the next phase of the ISIL conflict will look like?

In an interview broadcast Sunday on the CBS news program Face the Nation, President Barack Obama announced that that the United States’ fight against the Islamic terrorist group ISIL has entered a “new phase.” The number of U.S. troops acting as advisers to indigenous troops will double to approximately 3,000. A new deployment of 1,500 soldiers will be sent to four training centers, where, together with other members of the U.S.-led coalition, they will instruct Iraqi soldiers and help with the strategy and logistics needed to fight the militants on the ground. He has also requested more than $5 billion from Congress to fund military operations against the Islamic State.

Obama framed this so-called new phase as progress. Phase one was “getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible,” which, in the president’s estimation, has been an accomplishment. Now, “rather than just try to halt ISIL’s momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making,” the president said. For the second stage of operations, what is needed “is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back,” Obama said on Face the Nation. And he reiterated once again that American troops will not go into combat.

Yet while the president’s use of the word “phase” brings to mind a well-ordered plan of action, the key to his phrasing is the idea of change. U.S. military operations are changing — the president’s weekend announcement was evidence of a small escalation. The deployment of additional supervisors and the request for funds represents an incremental step toward greater U.S. involvement in the conflict. Particularly, the request for $5 billion and additional manpower is evidence that keeping such a conflict limited has already proven to be challenging.

That the president has made such a point of highlighting this evolution makes an analysis of the success of the American-led bombing campaign all the more important.

Is Obama underestimating ISIL again?

When Obama told the American public in early September that the threat posed by the Islamic militant group was worrisome enough that the United States would expand airstrikes from Iraq into Syria, critics of the White House’s strategy warned that bombing alone would not be enough to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State. One month after U.S. military engagement in the region escalated, Pentagon officials told the president that the problems highlighted by the Department of Defense early in the campaign have begun to be realized. “Airstrikes alone are not going to do this,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a news conference.

And during a September Senate hearing, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top Pentagon official, indicated that he would support sending U.S. advisers to accompany Iraqi troops into battle against militants if airstrikes fail. “Are pilots dropping bombs in Iraq a direct combat mission and will U.S. forces be prepared to provide search and rescue mission if pilots get shot down and be prepared to put boots on the ground to make that mission be successful?” asked Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Yes and yes,” Dempsey answered.

U.S. airstrikes on the extremist Islamic militant group known as ISIL (in other publications, ISIS or simply the Islamic State) began three months ago. In Iraq and Syria, the group remains in control of great tracts of territory as military commanders struggle to deal with restricted intelligence gathering, sandstorms, and the condition of the Iraqi Army, which is only now beginning to strike out against the Islamic State. These problems mean bombing missions — which are costing the Defense Department more than $8 million per day, or around $600 million total since airstrikes on Iraq began in early August — have limited effectiveness. Raids conducted over this past weekend illustrate these problems.

How successful have the airstrikes been?

To be clear, coalition bombers have successfully attacked the weapon caches, oil refineries, and the command and communication centers in Syria that the group relies upon to conduct military operations in Iraq. Raids launched over the weekend hit just such targets, including a convey of 10 ISIL armed trucks, several checkpoints, and fighters setting off an improvised explosive device in Fallujah. These attacks have caused Islamic State militants to disperse, slowing the group’s advance in the region.

“ISIL continues to lose capability on a daily basis because of the pressure that the coalition has put on them,” said Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, before the Atlantic Council, an influential, nonpartisan think tank in the field of international affairs. “They are afraid to congregate in any sizable formation, because they know that if we can see them, we’re going to engage them, and we’re going to get what we’re aiming at.” The biggest victory for the Obama administration’s bombing campaign has been the reported wounding of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, although his possible death is not expected to dismantle the organization.

What are the problems?

But finding targets at which to aim — including checkpoints, artillery, and combat vehicles — is not as easy as Austin’s comments may suggest. According to the U.S. military’s Central Command, only 800 of 3,200 strike missions dropped weapons, which translates to a 25% average. Part of the reason for this low figure is the natural byproduct of the fact that many easy targets, like training camps, have been already been destroyed. But lack of intelligence has also made effective bombing difficult.

The bombers and the drones that are conducting airstrikes do so with the aid of intelligence gathered by special operations forces. While gathering intelligence has been made all the more difficult because of the Obama administration’s fractious relationship with Syria’s Assad regime, in both countries, finding needed information has been impeded by the fact that American troops are not conducting raids on safe houses or militants — actions that during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought U.S. intelligence a stream of data that guided future missions.

Additional complexities have manifested; airstrikes are confined by the need to avoid civilian casualties. The Obama administration has made clear that that its civilian protection policy, which bars drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” that they would cause no civilian deaths, will not apply to current military operations in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, U.S. military leaders have emphasized that keeping civilian deaths minimal is essential to maintaining key alliances, especially with Sunni tribespeople, whose support is necessary for stabilizing the region.

These problems mean the air campaign is at a disadvantage, and progress is slow. Airstrikes average just seven per day. By comparison, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the 43-day Desert Storm air campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 saw 48,224 strikes, or roughly 1,100 per day; the 31-day air campaign that toppled Hussein’s government in 2003 averaged more than 800 offensive sorties a day.

Is the war a failure?

These statistics — the number of missions run per day, the number of bombs dropped and targets hit — make the war against the Islamic State seem a failure. “It’s not too soon to state the obvious: At this point, the war against the Islamic State can be seen only as failing,” wrote Washington Post opinion writer Eugene Robinson in the middle of October. “Intervention by the world’s mightiest military force has produced no shock and no awe. To be sure, U.S. and coalition airstrikes are inflicting some damage on Islamic State troops and equipment. But the bombing has done virtually nothing to alter the strategic balance of power — or to boost the fortunes of our ostensible allies on the ground, the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels and the hapless Iraqi military.”

At that time, Kobane — a strategic garrison along the Syrian-Turkish border — was besieged and close to falling to ISIL fighters. But despite air support from the American-led coalition, an influx of peshmerga reinforcements from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, and a strong defense from locals, Kobane is still besieged.

Robert N. Hein, a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, believes that describing the American mission as a failure is based in a misunderstanding of the Obama administration’s goals:

“Rather than defeat, containing their activities within failed or near-failing states is the best option for the foreseeable future. The United States has no desire to build nations, and without a stable Middle East, terror groups will continue to find safe haven; if not in western Iraq or Afghanistan, then in Yemen or Somalia. The Middle East and Africa have no shortage of ungoverned or poorly governed territories. The current strategy of prolonged engagement, development and training of local militias, logistic support and air strikes against real targets may be the best solution after all. This strategy keeps ISIS tied up overseas and draws radical extremists away from Western borders. While this doesn’t mean they can’t attempt to expand operations overseas in the future, keeping extremists focused overseas is the best policy.”

To Hein, “the administration is correctly informing the public that the war on ISIS will be a long, slow process.” However, the president’s critics believe Obama is struggling to find strategic clarity, given the airstrikes have returned mixed results. From former administration officials to experts to diplomats, an increasing number of Washington’s elite have raised complaints that Obama began the conflict without completely committing to the measures necessary to win the war.

That lack of commitment has only been made worse by the administration’s lack of senior officials with expertise in Iraq and Syria. Rivalries between Secretary of State John Kerry, the Pentagon, and Congress have also complicated policy making. “No one’s in charge of the policy” regarding the fight against ISIL, one former U.S. government official with knowledge conflict told Politico.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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