Iraq: What is to be done?

With Iraq “shattered by a jihadist blitzkrieg” (to quote the Washington Post), President Obama is weighing his options. “It’s fair to say. . .there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily,” Obama hedged.

What should “be done militarily”? I agree with Max Boot who says that “the U.S. should offer to provide not just airpower but intelligence analysts, military advisers, Special Operations Forces, and other assets to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to strike back effectively against ISIS.”

The taboo against “boots on the ground” (no pun intended) should be broken. Americans are rightfully wary about large scale deployments of ground troops. But an artificial injunction against “boots on the ground” is unreasonable for a country that plays for keeps.

Max Boot places a proviso on the provision of military aid to Iraq, however. He argues that we shouldn’t provide expanded assistance unless Iraqi President Maliki “makes dramatic moves to mollify the Sunnis, depoliticize the Iraqi security forces, and limit his own almost-unlimited authority.”

Boot reasons that “absent substantial political reform in Iraq, greater U.S. military aid at this juncture would be counterproductive” because it would “foster a narrative that the U.S. is supporting Shiite sectarianism in the civil war raging across the Middle East.”

That’s a valid consideration. But in the face of a “jihadist blitzkrieg” can the U.S. afford to wait for Maliki to make major changes in the way he governs?

And would Maliki be willing to make such changes? He has another option; it is called Iran. Maliki might well prefer to control less territory, but control it on his terms, as opposed to loosening his grip on power in the hope of regaining ground in the Sunni heartland.

But America’s long-term interest is in preventing the Sunni heartland from becoming a jihadist staging ground. And our short-term interest is in dealing the jihadists in that region another big defeat. We also have an interest in preventing Maliki from tilting too far towards Iran. Each interest militates in favor of providing stepped up assistance.

Under these circumstances, I doubt we are in a good position to drive a hard bargain with Maliki.

UPDATE: James Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general now at the Institute for the Study of War, provides military prescription similar to Boot’s:

What is needed is a coordinated air and ground action consisting of both a heavy dose of precisely applied firepower and a sufficiently executed ground defensive. The Iraqis are incapable of such action alone. The firepower will have to be delivered by United States and allied aircraft augmented by Iraqi assets.

The Iraqis will also need a small group of advisers to target air support correctly and to help identify or create capable, well-led units that are properly employed and backed by sufficient sustainment capacity. The advisory and support effort must be substantial enough to help the Iraqis conduct an initial defense and then plan and prepare a series of counter-offensive campaigns to regain lost areas.

This will be a multi-year effort, but it cannot become a second surge.

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