The Slow March Back to War in Iraq

Iraqis and Syrians are a year away from being able to take on Islamic State by themselves


Months after the Obama administration sent military advisers to Iraq to shore up the country’s splintered army, Baghdad is no closer to mounting an organized offensive against Islamic State, which controls territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Pentagon officials say they need at least a year to reorganize the Iraqi army, whose troops fled rather than fight the Sunni Muslim group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “It’s a mixed picture of competence and capability throughout the Iraqi army, and sometimes even within units,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said at a briefing in October. “This is an army that was not properly resourced, properly trained, properly maintained for three years.”

U.S. officials are still figuring out which moderate groups—among the insurgents who’ve been fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—it wants to bring into the battle against Islamic State. Saudi Arabia has offered to host a training camp for as many as 5,000 Syrian fighters, but the Pentagon hasn’t worked out how to transport them. Turkey has also agreed to let the U.S. train rebels on its soil. Fielding a force of two or three Syrian brigades could take two years and cost $1 billion to $2 billion annually, according to Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA Persian Gulf analyst who is at the Brookings Institution.

President Obama, who won in 2008 partly because he promised to get U.S. troops out of Iraq—which he did, in 2011—has pledged not to return American ground forces to the region. Instead, the U.S. has continued bombing Islamic State positions and has intensified support of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters along Iraq’s northern border. “The strategy’s very clear,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on Meet the Press in October. “We’ll do what we can from the air. We will support the Iraqi security forces, the Kurds, and ultimately, over time, the moderate opposition in Syria to be able to control territory and take the fight to ISIL.”

As Islamic State grows stronger, pressure is building on the administration to send U.S. troops to quickly rout the militants. “Ruling out U.S. ground forces is a huge mistake,” says James Jeffrey, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. “It’s going to take time to train ground forces in Syria and in Iraq to wage an offensive. Time isn’t on our side.”

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