Today, president Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would be sending 300 military advisors to Iraq, to help Baghdad respond to the rapid advance of a Sunni Jihadist group in the country’s north. But these troops won’t necessarily be doing anything that U.S. personnel aren’t doing already. And while there’s a certain shock value to the U.S. sending additional soldiers to a country where nearly 4,500 American troops have been killed since 2003, the Obama administration seems to be following a pragmatic and even reactive course in Iraq.
As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies explained to Business Insider, there are few militaries around the world that have received as much training and support from the U.S. as Iraq’s. And although Obama said the 300 advisors would be involved in embassy security and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, these were objectives that U.S. personnel were carrying out in Iraq before the crisis broke out. The U.S.’s involvement in the crisis isn’t deepening by much.
“This is pragmatic and rooted in the principle that local and regional forces should be in the lead and that the U.S. should be in more of a supportive role,” Gartenstein-Ross says of Obama’s announcement today.
He added that this approach was similar to the Obama administration’s response to the jihadist takeover of northern Mali, or to the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the Islamic Courts Union’s control of Somalia. In both instances, the U.S. played a non-combat supporting role while other regional actors defined both the parameters and the outcome of the crises. A French intervention beat back Islamist militants who had taken Mali’s northern half in 2013, while the U.S. provided assistance and political cover for the Ethiopian invasion that unseated the Courts Union in 2006.
Similarly, the U.S. could provide training, intelligence, and forms of logistical support while the Iraqi armed forces — and possibly Iran — take responsibility for the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the Al Qaeda castoff that took over much of northern Iraq last week.
Granted, those 300 advisors could expand intelligence collection in a way that makes future airstrikes more likely. “When Obama talks about [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] there’s a decent chance that we’ll end up flying surveillance drones over parts of Iraq to bolster our capabilities,” says Greenstein-Ross, adding that that information could lay the groundwork for more kinetic U.S. action. But that doesn’t amount to a change in U.S. strategy — even if it hints at future options in the region.
Robert Caruso, a former special security officer for the U.S. Navy, drew a distinction between the training and intelligence purpose of the advisors announced today, and special operations forces that could more directly help with a possible Iraqi push against ISIS. “The deployment of advisers the President authorised is prudent,” Caruso told Business Insider, “but not muscular enough. Special operations forces and enablers partnered with Iraqi forces are a good start.”
But today, Obama promised that American troops would not be re-entering combat in Iraq. Obama was elected partly because of his commitment to end the U.S.’s often-troubled military engagement with the country. With an Iraq strategy already firmly in place, he isn’t eager to start a new one.
Additional reporting by Michael Kelly
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