‘US seems to be constantly one step behind ISIS’

Reuters / Stringer
The US does have a strategy to combat Islamic State in Iraq but the problem is the US is moving too slowly with it, says Max Abrahms, Professor of Public Policy at Northeastern University.

Washington has announced its sending extra troops to Iraq. According to a White House statement, President Obama had authorized the deployment of 450 personnel to train Iraqi forces, who are struggling to repel Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants.

READ MORE: US to build new Iraqi base to train anti-ISIS Sunni fighters

RT:Do you think it's a good idea to send more American military personnel to Iraq?

Max Abrahms: I think it’s a good idea but I don’t think it’s a game changer. I think that essentially – and this might surprise some viewers – there is a strategy to combat IS in Iraq. The problem is that the US seems to be moving too slowly with the strategy. From the beginning we’ve known that we need boots on the ground. You need ground forces to prevail in countering insurgency. So then the question is: Where do these boots come from? So reluctantly Washington is now using the Shia militias who were successful in Tikrit but then were sidelined in Anbar because of fears of Iranian expansion. And now we’re finding that there are just not enough Sunni fighters. The Sunni fighters… there are not that many of them and they don’t seem to be that motivated, and they don’t seem to have that much capability in terms of their weapons. So the idea is that the US is going to deploy 450 military advisors, supply some additional arms and then the Shia militia can work with these Sunni tribes and team up against IS. I think it’s a good idea, we should basically be throwing the kitchen sink at IS, using any resources on the ground who are willing and able to confront this group. But I think that we need to intensify this effort and frankly it’s coming quite late.

Retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkovsky comments on US plans to build a new military base to train Iraqi forces to fight IS: “I doubt that the president can get away with anything but a statement of training because the American people are really tired of Iraq, they are tired of hearing about it, tired of Syria, of ISIS. I imagine they will be trying to train, but it just doesn’t seem that it’s going to be that effective given where they are located, and given that they are only dealing with the Sunni opposition to IS.”

RT:What are the main problems or concerns with that strategy you just outlined? There are some people suggesting that if you send further weapons into the conflict zone maybe some of the Sunni groups will trade them off to IS.

MA: There is no question. There are tradeoffs to all of these strategies. IS is a radical Sunni group and it’s set up shop in Sunni communities, and it’s not entirely clear at this point the nature of support by the surrounding Sunni population for this group. So the fear is that if we weaponize the local population that doesn’t just basically enter into some kind of a deal with IS fighters who will then be strengthened even more and turn against the government. In fact, this isn’t just speculation; there is really some empirical basis to this concern because in the past, years ago, when we wanted to fight al-Qaeda we armed these Sunni tribes and many of them turned out to be very untrustworthy.

AFP Photo / ISIL

RT:Washington recently admitted it doesn't have a fully-worked out strategy for combating ISIS in Iraq. Is this announcement about advisors being sent an attempt to fix that? Is it a knee jerk reaction or a long term, well thought out strategy?

MA: I think that your choice of the word ‘reaction’ is a very good one. This is a sort of reactionary counter insurgency strategy. It seems like we are constantly one step behind IS. I think we are making the right moves, but we need to intensify the effort. For example, US air power used by the Coalition is useful... The problem is there is not just enough of it. The number of sorties is very low and when these sorties are made the percentage of times when bombs are actually dropped is only about 25 percent. We need to ramp up all of this. We need to use Shia militia, to win over the Sunni population and help to arm them and then we need to provide some real air power.

‘Washington doesn’t have a grip on how to deal with ISIS’

Richard Becker from the anti-war Answer coalition on the confusion over whether the US has any kind of clear strategy in fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

RT:This particular division sent to Iraq has participated in many combat operations. So is their deployment really just aimed at training this time or is it something more?

READ MORE: White House hopes new Iraq base will boost Sunni recruitment

Richard Becker: It’s very hard to say. We would think that there is definitely something more to it. They are sending trainers as the Iraqi army has not been able to hold its own against IS, that’s very clear. But you know one thing leads to another in these cases. For instance, building a new base very close to Ramadi, which is now under the control of IS, what guarantees that IS is not going to attack this new base while it’s being built or after it’s built. And if that were the case and if the base were in danger of falling would that mean that the US would then send thousands or tens of thousands more troops to protect it. I think that would be highly likely. So it’s an open-ended kind of thing. I’m old enough to remember Vietnam while we heard about advisors, advisors, advisors, and then very quickly there were half a million troops. I don’t think that’s going to happen in regard to Iraq because there is so much opposition in the US to the deployment of large numbers of troops again into Iraq after the last disaster. Not even the chorus of Republican candidates who are criticizing President Obama for this move are saying to send hundreds or thousands of troops - which is what it would take - and even then there will be no guarantee of victory.

Retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkovsky comments on US plans to build a new military base to train Iraqi forces to fight IS: “It sounds like they want to train the Iraqis to go aggressively into territory - and I think the president said this - to retake territory that ISIS has taken and controls. So it sounds like the 450 troops are geared towards training the Iraqis to do aggressive combat operations, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense given their past performance.”

RT:Why do you think the US decided to deploy a military unit which mostly specializes in combat rather than training activities?

RB: I think that they see the weakness, it’s very clear to them. They invested tens of billions of dollars in building up the Iraqi military but it hasn’t worked. I remember way back in January 1975, the army of South Vietnam that was constructed in a similar way under occupation was rated the fifth largest military in the world and five months later it didn’t exist anymore. The US government, the Pentagon and the White House are trying to find a way to salvage this situation, to salvage something in Iraq after all that blood, mostly blood on the Iraqi side of course, but it’s not clear that they do have any kind of a clear strategy in that regard.

RT:The US has pulled out of Iraq but now it's going back in. Is this an admission it never really succeeded?

RB: This has been a disaster for US policy. You can see with the great arrogance that the Iraqi government was dismantled back in 2003, the military was dismantled, there are always proclamations about Iraqis welcoming the US troops and how this was all going to be a new day for Iraq and the entire Middle East. And instead it turned into a disaster. The US barely escaped from outright defeat back in 2009 and 2010. Then it pulled out the troops. But the instability that was introduced into the whole region by the US invasion of Iraq, by its allies’ support for the opposition in Syria, its dismantling of the Libyan state, all of this has come togetherto create a situation which Washington doesn’t really have a grip on how to deal with. They are trying some of these things but it doesn’t appear that this will push back IS.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.