The seizure of Mosul and its other cities throughout Iraq’s oil-rich north means the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) will continue to press its offensive in the next few months.
ISIS does not need to “take” Baghdad by force, nor will it attempt to. Rather, the Sunni extremist group merely needs to provoke the full activation of rival Shi’a militias that set off sectarian bloodletting in 2006, the most violent years of the U.S.’s military presence in Iraq.
With recent ISIS gains in the ethnically mixed bellwether province of Diyala and a proclamation of general Shi’a mobilization by religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq could soon be plunged back into the horrific, uncontrollable violence that the U.S. struggled to contain eight years ago.
But the recent developments in Iraq do not warrant panic and naïve knee-jerk reactions about the country or a definable regional “Sunni v. Shi’a battle.” The U.S. can undertake non-combat deployments of U.S. personnel to aid Iraq in its fight against ISIS and prevent Iran from furthering its influence on Baghdad — a mission that can achieve U.S. objectives without committing the country to combat forces.
The U.S. should eschew ineffectual airstrikes and reconstitute its pre-withdrawal advise-and-assist mission, which would provide the expertise of the U.S. military and primary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to the Iraqi military.
Simultaneously, the administration should expedite pending arms deliveries to Iraq by working with Congress, while reaching out to Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani to explore materially supporting the effective but under-equipped Peshmerga, Kurdistan’s army.
To complement these military missions, the CIA contingent in the country should be reinforced, and U.S. military personnel should be deployed within major bases to provide counter-rocket, artillery, mortar, and missile cover to protect American and Iraqi personnel. Country-wide, the overt deployment would amount to a brigade’s worth (2,000-2,500) of American personnel, none of whom would have to step outside the wire.
Regardless of what policy President Obama ultimately chooses, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad should not be closed. Such an abdication would completely cede U.S. influence and reflect an excess of caution after the Benghazi controversy.
Blame for the current state of affairs can be placed on a bewildering array of actors. But Maliki’s choice to engage ISIS in Anbar Province in December 2013 represents a strategic military mistake of the first order. By allowing ISIS to define the terms of the engagement, Maliki assured a poor military outcome: ISIS fortified its positions inside Anbar’s two major cities and let the Iraqi army’s indiscriminate bombardments crystallize already-sour Sunni opinions against Baghdad.
Maliki made a political settlement to Iraq’s sectarian rift all but impossible.
With these precedents in mind, the fallen northern and central cities must be re-taken quickly. Every passing day undermines Iraqi trust in Baghdad and allows ISIS to fortify their gains. ISIS could turn Iraq’s cities into booby-trapped nightmares like Fallujah, which the U.S. retook with significant casualties in 2004 — and that the Iraqi military refuses to enter in 2014. Luckily, recent figures of ISIS strength vastly overstate the group’s size. Their total strength in Iraq falls in the range of 2,000-2,500, generously.
Political negotiations should be pursued. But Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk labored with exceeding heroism and ingenuity for months to find political solutions to various disputes and came away empty-handed in almost every case. McGurk knows Iraq well and dueled admirably with Iranian actors in Baghdad, including Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani — but he always approached the table with little U.S. leverage.
The goals of such a limited U.S. deployment are clear, measurable, and bookended by concrete levels of achievement that will dictate the mission’s end.
First, the advise-and-assist mission will use unmanned aerial vehicles to provide capabilities woefully lacking in the Iraqi security forces. The deployment of U.S. military advisers outside the Green Zone in Baghdad would display American resolve to Iraqis who see Iranians fighting and dying in their own country. Far more importantly, the Iraqi army needs both operational and strategic advice and support — especially in urban warfare — as evidenced by its reliance on mid-level commanders from Iranian-backed Shi’a militia groups like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq that have been accumulating experience fighting for Assad in Syria.
Actively undercutting Iranian influence should be seen as an ancillary benefit. The widespread desertions in the Iraqi Army — 12,000 and counting, since the December 2013 crisis — are soldiers who do not believe in senior command. No shortcuts exist for creating a competent officer corps, but avoiding that central issue cedes the arena to Iran and wastes an area of relative U.S. expertise — military planning and execution.
More must be done, in conjunction with an advise-and-assist mission. Outside the wire and inside the shadows, Iran continues to exert its influence in Iraq.
In this arena, there is no technological substitute for covert boots on the ground. CIA and other national intelligence agencies should move aggressively to penetrate adversary networks in Iraq and expand across the region, from Lebanon to Jordan. Secure Iraqi airbases alongside U.S. operating areas in Turkey could further facilitate the use of manned surveillance platforms like the RC-135 Rivet Joints, RC-12 GUARDRAILs and non-standard aviation platforms flown by the Air Force Special Operations Command.
As Iranian and Iraqi elements coordinate and communicate, surveillance would enable the United States to map the contours of these disparate networks to improve our own understanding, pass targeting information to Baghdad, and, if necessary, strike those posing an imminent threat to the U.S.
The President has a range of options. U.S. military and intelligence personnel can airdrop riverine craft into the Euphrates, or attempt to co-opt, cripple, and compromise adversary communication networks. The U.S. can fly electronic warfare platforms that will shut down any improvised explosive devices that threaten U.S. personnel. They can fly modified C-130s armed with Griffin and Hellfire missiles, and can provide an air bridge with C-17s and other aircraft to arm Kurdish and other friendly forces in their fight against ISIS and other groups seeking to undermine Iraqi sovereignty.
Re-litigating past policy battles wastes everyone’s time — and more importantly the lives and well being of ordinary Iraqis, nearly a million of whom have been displaced in the past six months. The U.S. should approach the strategic situation as it stands, and alter its policies before the balance of power shifts further in the direction of either ISIS or Iran.
Rick Berger is a research analyst at the Japan Center and independent researcher on Iraqi affairs. He is currently completing his M.A. in Security Policy Studies at the George Washington University Elliott School, where he serves as the managing editor of the International Affairs Review.
Robert Caruso was a special security officer for the United States Navy and served with the Department of State, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Business Transformation Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defence.
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