American Help: Iraqi Army troops chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as they recruit volunteers to join the fight against a major offensive by the jihadist group in northern Iraq. The US has provided $14 billion in military assistance to Iraq since 2005. (ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration appeared to close the door on the Iraq War late last week, flatly rejecting the use of American ground forces in Iraq and offering a cool assessment of the potential for American action as the government in Baghdad struggles to hold back the rapidly advancing radical Islamists closing in on the capital.
“The United States will do our part, but understand that ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems,” President Barack Obama said.
“We will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq” he stated flatly.
In keeping with his administration’s deliberate — critics say overly slow — assessment of how to flex American power abroad, Obama told reporters that “the United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together.”
The administration has been adamant that any solution to the increasing violence in Iraq over the past year will have to include greater Sunni participation in the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, who recently won reelection but who has alienated the Sunni population.
When the last US trainers and advisers boarded Kuwait-bound convoys out of Baghdad in December 2011, few had any doubt that the Iraqi military was still very much a work in progress. It lacked the most basic ability to conduct combined arms maneuver, provide air support for troops in contact, gather intelligence, and in many cases even field and sustain units.
“There were gaping holes in the capabilities of the Iraqi military” in late 2011, said Rick Brennan, a senior political scientist at Rand who served as a civilian adviser for the US military command in Baghdad in 2011.
“We knew that we were leaving the job significantly uncompleted,” when US forces pulled out, he said. In November 2011, the command in Baghdad completed a war termination assessment that looked at all the goals and objectives laid out for the command by the Pentagon, “and roughly 30 percent of the tasks we felt comfortable saying we had achieved.”
When the United States left, it also took with it sophisticated surveillance drones, satellite imagery, and its human and signals intelligence capabilities, all things the Iraqis have been unable to replicate.
One of the big things US forces focused on was training the trainers, but “that was one of the things we started late in the game and it was probably still one of the things that was the weakest” capability by the end of 2011, Brennan said.
The videos of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) group driving around Mosul in armored American Humvees has startled Washington and its allies, and it underscores the larger problem of sophisticated US equipment falling into the hands of extremist elements on their march south toward Baghdad.
It’s difficult to arrive at any precise accounting of what real capabilities the $14 billion in foreign military assistance that the United States has provided to Iraq since 2005 brings to the fight, since much of the equipment has yet to be delivered.
This month an Iraqi delegation signed the transfer papers for the first deliveries of F-16 fighters, but it will be years before the planes are delivered and pilots are trained.
Likewise, Washington announced in January its desire to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq along with more than 400 Hellfire missiles, more than $2 billion in radar, and anti-aircraft missiles.
More recently, the US has rushed 10 ScanEagle drones along with 48 Raven drones to Iraq, and has shipped hundreds of tank rounds and Hellfire missiles to Baghdad; it has also indicated it is working on selling dozens of Stryker infantry carriers and surveillance helicopters. There are also deals in the works for more M113 infantry carriers, Humvees, and other equipment in agreements worth another $2 billion.
Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said on June 12 that US officials “are continuing the process of providing weapons and equipment to the Iraqis so they can counter this ISIS threat,” but “security is part of the process of transferring weapons systems” to Baghdad.
On June 12, President Barack Obama said that when it comes to additional assistance to Baghdad, “I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.”
But any help will have to include promises of political reform in Baghdad, Obama said. Maliki’s Shia-led government has replaced many senior Sunni military officials with Shia allies since the American exit and purged Sunni political leaders, leading to widespread anger in the Sunni heartland being overrun by the Sunni ISIS.
Adding to the confusion on the ground is the fact that some ISIS groups have started moving east toward the Iranian border, leading to reports that Ghassem Suleimani, the commander of Tehran’s Quds Force, which is already heavily involved in bolstering Assad’s government in Syria, would get involved.
There is “no doubt Tehran will build up its border forces” said Shahram Chubin, senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But he added that he doubts the Shia government in Iran “will want to get directly involved just yet, though they may increase aid to Maliki.”
Only about half of the Iraqi companies in the field were able to conduct combined arms maneuver operations at the time. Videos posted on YouTube in recent days show long columns of thousands of disarmed Iraqi troops being marched out of cities in the north, indicating a massive collapse of entire divisions that had handed their weapons and equipment over to the estimated 3,000 to 6,000 fighters with ISIS, a radical group pouring over the border from Syria.
The group, led by native Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who had long experience battling US forces in Iraq before heading to Syria to battle the forces of Bashir al-Assad — has an estimated 3,000 foreign fighters.
The group has grown from the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq, which was formed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and whose leadership fled to Syria late in the war to escape the pursuit of US Joint Special Operations Command and US airstrikes.
ISIS has been battling less radical Islamist groups and secular rebel organizations in Syria, and has seized control of the oil fields of eastern Syria, using the proceeds to bankroll its operations. In Iraq, it has taken the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, causing close to a million refugees to flee those cities.
But the Iraqi security force is not what the United States envisioned it was building in the final years of US involvement there.
“Internal capacity to train and maintain forces did not exist in Iraq” by the end of 2011, Brennan said, adding “we did work with them to try and enhance their intelligence gathering capacity, but it was rudimentary at best.”
A recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that Iraq had 271,400 active military personnel by early 2013, with 193,400 in the Army, and 5,050 in its developing Air Force, and special operations forces. ■