IMMEDIATE RELEASE 17 September 2014
Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – President Obama’s vow not to put boots back on the ground in Iraq, or send them to Syria, has prompted some analysts to wonder what kind of footwear is worn by U.S. military advisors and the so-called “black-ops” personnel dispatched by the CIA. Maybe they’re in Gucci loafers.
Washington is engaged in both the silly and the serious as the politicians and the pundits debate Obama’s plan to “defeat and ultimately degrade” ISIS, the self-declared Islamic state. Obama wants to do it largely through air strikes. If boots on the ground become necessary, Obama says they will be somebody else’s boots, not those belonging to U.S. combat soldiers.
Testifying before Congress on Tuesday, Army General Martin Dempsey, who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would not hesitate to recommend to the president the insertion of U.S. troops into the conflict if he thought that was necessary. It was really the only thing he could say in response to a question that sought to see if he had the backbone to stand up to the commander in chief should the situation warrant.
Dempsey passed the test. He’s no yes man. But his definition of troops on the ground is much narrower than the Washington Post headline on Wednesday, “Combat role is not off table.” The sub-head, “Dempsey: Special Forces may be needed,” offered essential context. For example, U.S. military advisors are already in Iraq serving as “forward observers” to call in air strikes.
As Dempsey explained, he is consulting with Obama on a case-by-case basis whether small teams of U.S. advisers should accompany Iraqi soldiers in certain situations. The parameters of exactly what advisers deployed to Iraq will be doing is very much a focus of Congress as lawmakers prepare to fund the training of moderate Syrians battling ISIS in Syria. After the November election, Congress will likely debate additional authority for Obama to expand air strikes and counter-terrorism efforts into Syria.
Obama’s critics call his plan a house of cards because he has not yet secured commitments for ground troops from other countries in the region even though they have more at stake than the U.S. in this fight. Without ground troops, according to their argument, ISIS cannot be defeated. Air power alone can’t do the job.
Admittedly there’s a lot that’s unknown about the course Obama has chosen, but it’s not as dire as the critics suggest. The model for what Obama envisions is the way the Northern Alliance routed the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2003 with the assistance of the CIA and a small number of U.S. forces operating covertly. The Northern Alliance had some 20,000 fighters, not a big number, but its strength was magnified by U.S. air power.
Skeptics should do the math. The troops for this collective effort against ISIS will come from the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, known as the Peshmerga, and also from Kurdish forces in Northern Syria. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is getting closer to forming a unity government under a newly elected prime minister, which should make it possible for Iraq to field a unified army with both Sunnis and Shiites. This would contrast with the Iraqi Army that dropped its American-supplied weapons and fled before the ISIS onslaught. Those soldiers felt no loyalty toward the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
There are also Shiite-led militias in Iraq. Once enemies of the U.S., they mobilized to stop ISIS short of Baghdad. And although proven fighters, their mere presence alienates Sunnis, who, in turn, might swing toward ISIS. How the militias can be incorporated into the Iraqi Army or controlled by the Iraqi government is an open question. In the end these militias represent a form of war lordism, as witnessed in Somalia and elsewhere. So, regardless of their military acumen, they cannot be allowed to act independent of the government.
In this powder keg of religion and politics, the presence of either free-wheeling Shiite militias or regular U.S. ground troops would constitute a provocation, and be a huge mistake. Clearly, boots on the ground come in many styles, and not all are appropriate for this fight.
© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND