U.S. Officials Weigh Next Moves to Defeat Iraq Extremists

The U.S. is pursuing a four-pronged strategy to thwart Islamic State extremists in Iraq and avert a collapse of the oil-rich nation, while plans to do more depend on the outcome of the leadership struggle in Baghdad.

The steps to deal with the immediate crisis include some that have been made public, such as limited airstrikes and sending arms to the Kurds, and some that haven’t, such as providing battlefield intelligence to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and pressing Sunni Arab nations to support the fight against the insurgents, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because elements of the evolving approach are classified.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the U.S. is prepared to do more to fight the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki steps down and a new government is formed that includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

“The reason President Obama has been so clear about wanting to get the government formation before beginning to tackle ISIL in the most significant way -- excepting the kind of emergency circumstances that have arisen -- is because if you don’t have a government that is inclusive and that works, nothing else will work, plain and simply,” Kerry said during a visit to Australia.

‘Real Test’

A post-Maliki government would “present the Obama administration with a real test of its strategy,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served in Iraq. “How much further is the president willing to go?”

While Mansoor, a former executive officer to Army General David Petraeus, said he agrees “so far with the administration’s measured approach,” he added that more will be needed to defeat the Islamic State.

The options would include more extensive airstrikes in Iraq as well as extending them into neighboring Syria to deny militants a safe haven, the deployment of attack helicopters and even the introduction of as many as 10,000 U.S. personnel on the ground, Mansoor said in a phone interview.

Still, President Barack Obama will probably “stick with his no-troops-on-the-ground pledge,” said Mansoor, who was a brigade commander in Baghdad in 2003 to 2004 and is now a professor of military history at the Ohio State University in Columbus.

Political Dilemma

The dilemma Obama faces is as complicated politically as it is militarily, the U.S. officials said. While some American defense officials say that even 10,000 U.S. troops wouldn’t be enough to uproot Islamic State militants, there’s little public or political support in this congressional election year for sending any American combat forces back to Iraq.

Even the current U.S. air campaign requires congressional authorization, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Near East, said in a statement yesterday. Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called on Obama to articulate a “comprehensive strategy.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced yesterday that 130 additional American military advisers have arrived in Erbil in northern Iraq to help assess conditions amid a humanitarian crisis. The personnel are Marines and special-operations forces.

“This is not a combat boots-on-the-ground operation,” Hagel said in addressing troops at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

The new advisers are in addition to about 700 U.S. military personnel already in Iraq for embassy security, to serve as advisers to the Iraq military and to staff joint operations centers in Baghdad and Erbil, according to the Pentagon.

Special-Operations Units

Even though Obama has ruled out ground combat troops, “there may be opportunities to insert special-operations units that can play havoc” with militant forces, said Frederic Hof, a former special adviser on Syria at the State Department who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

U.S. airpower on its own can’t defeat the Islamic State, he said, so “the heavy lifting militarily has to be borne by the Iraqi army.”

The current U.S. airstrikes are having only a “temporary effect” on the extremists, U.S. Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters at the Pentagon on Aug. 11. The strikes haven’t been extensive enough to contain them or reduce their capabilities, he said.

“The history of using limited airpower in wars like this one shows that a few pinpricks from the sky rarely make a difference on the ground,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote yesterday on the Foreign Affairs website.

Commando Teams

The U.S. may need to set up several dozen commando teams -- requiring 1,000 to 5,000 special-operations troops -- to strike “hard, fast, and early” so the enemy doesn’t have time to adjust, he said. Alternatively, the U.S. might deploy as many as 100 security assistance teams of 10 to 20 U.S. soldiers each to embed at the small-unit level with Iraqi forces for as long as two years, he wrote.

“None of this will be appealing to the U.S. public, the Congress, or Obama,” he wrote, adding that the “intolerable” alternative is for the Islamic State to build the caliphate it envisions in Iraq and beyond.

Maliki, who came to power eight years ago with U.S. backing, is locked in a power struggle with his nominated successor, Parliament Deputy Speaker Haidar al-Abadi, a rival Shiite politician from Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party. Maliki has lost the support of his two key foreign backers, the U.S. and Iran.

Creating Opening

Obama erred by backing Maliki too long and creating an opening for Sunni militants to exploit, said Ali Khedery, a former U.S. adviser in Iraq who’s now chairman and chief executive of Dubai-based Dragoman Partners, a strategic consulting firm on the Middle East.

While supporting the current approach of replacing Maliki with an inclusive government, Khedery said that a major U.S. military offensive would be a mistake -- a view shared by some Obama administration officials.

“The worst thing we could do is more military action and boots on the ground,” he said. “You need to strengthen and support regional allies. Only Muslims, and particularly Sunni Muslims, can clamp down and strangle and isolate” the Islamic State militants.

Four Prongs

First in the four-pronged U.S. strategy now under way is the campaign of airstrikes on militants’ armed vehicles and mortar positions to protect Erbil, where there are Americans, and to help save Yezidi civilians trapped on a mountain.

Second, the CIA and other intelligence agencies are providing some arms, advice and information directly to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, said the two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. This includes what one of the officials described as timely reports on the position, movements and size of Islamic State forces, aimed particularly at the defense of Erbil, seat of the Kurdish Regional Government and home to a U.S. consulate.

Third, U.S. defense and intelligence agencies are helping to coordinate support for the Kurds from other Sunni states, including Turkey, Jordan and Persian Gulf nations. It’s vital that Sunni powers be prominent to discredit the Islamic State as a legitimate protector of Sunni Muslims, both officials said.

Fourth, the U.S. is continuing the effort to press Iraqi political leaders to replace Maliki to clear the way for new American military aid and intelligence support.

Sunni Awakening

There’s debate among Obama’s advisers on an additional step: reaching out to some Sunni tribal leaders in a bid to recreate the 2006-2007 Awakening, when the U.S. paid and armed some Sunni tribesmen to fight al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a predecessor of the Islamic State.

“We are convinced that with a unified effort by Iraqis, and particularly if there is a return to the kind of localized efforts that existed in the Sons of Anbar or the Iraqi Anbar Awakening, as it’s referred to, that there will be plenty of opportunity here for a pushback against ISIL forces, which is why the restoration of a unified, inclusive government is so critical as a starting point,” Kerry said.

A U.S. military official said Kerry’s comments didn’t reflect a consensus, and that military planners oppose the effort to restart the Sunni Awakening. The issue has been a matter of dispute between the Pentagon and State Department, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.

Low Profile

Some administration officials involved with Iraq policy said that there are multiple reasons why the U.S. should act cautiously and keep a low profile.

A major American military operation against the Islamic State would create a backlash in the Sunni world that would draw more militants to the Islamic State, said the officials who asked not to be identified discussing internal policy debate. It also could provoke the group and others to increase efforts to attack U.S. and allied interests.

The Islamic State, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria, can be stopped only by a coalition of Sunni states, themselves threatened by the group’s vision of a transnational caliphate, said one of the officials.

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