The Strategic Dimension Of Obama’s Iraq Campaign

First, the good news. Some progress has been made in aiding the Yazidi refugees trapped on Sinjar Mountain:

Iraqi Kurdish security forces have opened a road to Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq, rescuing more than 5,000 Yazidis trapped there after running away from fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group, a Kurdish army spokesman has told Al Jazeera. “I can confirm that we succeeded in reaching the mountains and opening a road for the refugees,” said Halgord Hikmet, a spokesman for the peshmergas the Kurdish security forces.

But with the president acknowledging that the new air campaign in Iraq will last for months (at least), there is obviously a strategic element to this intervention beyond the immediate humanitarian objective. Meghan O’Sullivan worries that by framing the campaign as primarily humanitarian, Obama risks obscuring those “equally strong” strategic goals:

Whatever the reasoning, relying solely on humanitarian arguments to justify American action could create problems for the Obama administration down the road. While the trapped Yezidis must be rescued, this is not the only objective that limited U.S. military force can and should achieve. In fact, if initial reports are accurate, the first airstrikes were not against ISIS at Sinjar mountain, which is near Syria, but against targets near Erbil, far to the east, nearer the Iranian border. Such strikes are welcome — Kurdish forces have fought alongside the U.S. in more than one war — but the rationale is more strategic than humanitarian. While Americans are unlikely to protest this distinction today, the White House may open itself up to criticism of overstepping its self-defined mandate if it continues to use limited airpower for strategic gains after the immediate humanitarian crisis is resolved.

Phillip Lohaus criticizes Obama for having no coherent strategy, arguing that he can’t take on the project of defeating ISIS while forswearing the deployment of ground forces:

Right now, the administration is only making things harder for itself. The President’s statement that he will send no additional American troops to Iraq, though politically soothing at home, also reassures ISIS that US involvement will remain limited. At home, the President has yet to explain precisely why the prospect of genocide was not reason enough to stay in Iraq in 2007, but that now, apparently, it is reason enough to strike.  Amidst this strategic confusion, it’s no wonder that the President’s foreign policy approval ratings are at an all-time low.

Let’s be clear: no one is advocating for sending hundreds of thousands of troops back to Iraq. But, as evidenced by the presence of American advisers and now air strikes, the decision of whether we should involve ourselves or not has already been made. What’s less clear is whether the President has defined his objectives and whether he is willing to dedicate what is required to achieve them.

So mission creep is a real danger here, and the president’s pledge of no ground forces is in doubt, especially if he wants to cripple ISIS permanently. Such an objective could require thousands of American soldiers:

Military experts say tactical commanders will want more ground forces. Forward air controllers could provide more precise targeting information. U.S. advisers could support the Kurdish forces fighting the militants. And U.S. commanders may need to expand their intelligence effort on the ground. In turn, U.S. forces might need a forward operating base with a security perimeter, more force protection and a logistical supply line. Medevac capabilities may require a helicopter detachment and a small aviation maintenance shed.

“You’re talking about a 10,000- to 15,000-soldier effort to include maintenance, and medevac and security,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as executive officer to David Petraeus during the 2007 surge in Iraq and now is a professor of military history at Ohio State University. “But that is the price you’re going to pay if you want to roll back [Islamic State]. You can’t just snap your fingers and make it go away,” Mansoor said.

Benjamin Friedman calls the goals of the intervention “a muddle”:

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that we should aide moderate opponents of Bashir al-Assad’s government. But aiding any rebels there hurts the main Syrian force going after ISIS. We cannot foster insurgency in Syria and suppress one Iraq without contradiction.  The president says that the bombing in Iraq falls under the “broader strategy that empowers Iraqis to confront this crisis” by creating a “new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.” He promises increased U.S. support once a new government forms. The implicit message is that if the next Iraqi government has someone other than Nouri al-Maliki heading it and takes steps to deal with Sunni grievances, more support will flow. But bombing ISIS might increase Maliki or some other Shi’ite leader’s security, reducing their incentive to give ground to Sunnis.

But Saletan doubts that this is the beginning of a new war, arguing that military intervention “doesn’t have to fit into a strategy for military victory”:

It can make sense on more modest terms, as part of a larger political process that is moving in the right direction and is driven by other players. When miscreants such as ISIS endanger that process, a timely use of force can contain the damage and preserve the momentum. We don’t have to wage a larger war in Iraq.

One of his reasons for thinking so:

ISIS will destroy itself. We don’t have to stamp out ISIS, because its growth is inherently limited. It picks too many fights and alienates too many people. It has already taken on the Iraqi army, the Kurds, the Turks, Iraqi Baathists, and many Iraqi Sunnis. Now it’s going head to head against Syria’s armed forces. As if that weren’t enough, ISIS went into Lebanon this week. ISIS also antagonizes civilians in its territory. People in Mosul are rebelling against its oppression. It won’t last.

Reihan supports the intervention but has qualms about the long-term implications:

I am a pessimist. Though I sincerely hope that the limited airstrikes authorized by the president will be enough to force ISIS into retreat, I don’t expect this gruesome war to end tomorrow. We need to start thinking about the Yazidis and the Christians and the other persecuted Iraqis who will need to find shelter somewhere other than Iraq. The United States welcomed as many as 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. We might have to welcome just as many from Iraq in the years to come.

And Robin Wright warns of “a broader danger”:

The direct American presence may galvanize more jihadis to the Islamic State. There was no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq until after the United States deployed troops in 2003, an act that fuelled Al Qaeda’s local appeal, on territorial, political, and religious grounds. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is now estimated to have between ten thousand and twenty thousand fighters, including a couple of thousand with Western passports and a hundred or so from the United States.

As the United States confronts ISIS, the dangers that Americans will be targeted at home grow. Last month, the F.B.I.’s director, James B. Comey, said that the domestic threat emanating from ISIS “keeps me up at night,” that ISIS was a potential “launching ground” for attacks of the kind that occurred on September 11, 2001. The Attorney General, Eric H. Holder, Jr., told ABC News that ISIS, particularly its American jihadis, “gives us really extreme, extreme concern. . . . In some ways, it’s more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as Attorney General.”