What the President's ISIL Strategy Means to the Army

Opinion Articles

When President Barack Obama gave his speech outlining his strategy to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on September 10, 2014, he was very clear that he would not send U.S. troops into Iraq with a ground combat mission. The United States will “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL though “a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” The President outlined four parts to this strategy: (1) conduct airstrikes against ISIL, to include in Syria if need be; (2) increase support to the ground forces fighting ISIL with intelligence, training, and equipment; (3) work with partners to cutoff funding and foreign fighter flow, counter ISIL ideology, and strengthen U.S. defense from terrorist attacks; and, (4) provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians. His strategy has very profound strategic implications for the Army beyond the obvious “train, advise, and assist” and “provide humanitarian assistance” missions.

First and foremost, the Army, as a broad uniformed warfighting institution, must understand and internalize that the crisis in Iraq is neither Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) 14-16 nor Operation NEW DAWN (OND) Part II. This is something significantly different from the Army’s 10 years of experience in Iraq. ISIL is better equipped than al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) or any other militia or extremist groups the Army faced. None of them had tanks, for example. ISIL is labeled as a terrorist organization. While it does employ very brutal methods to instill terror, it is a paramilitary organization rather than a terrorist structure composed of cells and networks. Fighting ISIL has an element of mid-intensity combat to it, rather than the traditional counterinsurgency (COIN) operations that the Army has learned over the past decade in Iraq. Therefore, conventional major offensive operations are necessary in addition to COIN efforts. Because the Army may be called on to send even more advisors, it must also recognize that the Iraqi Army was not trained for mid-intensity conflict to any significant degree.

Second, the Army must understand that it very likely may be fighting alongside “strange bedfellows.” The Secretary of State had made clear that Iran is not welcome to contribute to a coalition, but left open the option of having dialog with Iran. Baghdad is facing an existential threat and already has a close relationship with Iran; it may not be willing to turn aside Iranian offers of assistance. It is extraordinarily unlikely that U.S., Iraqi, and Iranian forces would cooperate or coordinate in the fight against ISIL. It is possible, however, that U.S. Army personnel assisting or advising Iraqi or Kurdish forces could encounter Iranian advisors or technical specialists. ISIL is at least as great a threat to Iran as it is to the United States.

Third, ISIL’s seat of power and base of operations is in Syria, not in Iraq. The President stated he will authorize airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, as well as in Iraq. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated time and again that airstrikes alone without a corresponding ground offensive will not decisively defeat an adversary. Thus, the implication for the Army is that ISIL forces in Iraq will have a secure safe haven across the Syrian border, and therefore any U.S.-assisted ground operations in Iraq must account for ISIL’s relatively secure strategic access into Iraq. ISIL has an uninterrupted logistics network from safe havens in Syria for moving large numbers of forces and heavy equipment. Much of the heavy weapons moving into Iraq were captured from Syrian regime forces or provided to the Syrian opposition from other countries. Also ISIL seized a significant amount of U.S.-supplied vehicles when it captured Mosul. During OIF and OND, the Iraqi-Syrian border was used to smuggle foreign fighters and improvised explosive device (IED) materials and facilitators into Iraq. Now it is a major main supply route for ISIL.

Fourth, the Army can assume that the President will direct the deployment of advisory and assistance teams from conventional forces to partner with Iraqi conventional units, and that this will become a semi-enduring requirement. As the Army learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, if the conflict expands or drags on then Special Operations Forces will probably not have the capacity to conduct all the necessary advisory missions. It is also likely they will become consumed with training Syrian opposition forces. Over the course of OIF and OND, the United States employed a series of different models for embedding teams with the Iraqis. In the early part of the war, these teams were usually taken from deployed units. After a few years, the Army formalized the Transition Team program at Fort Riley, Kansas, under 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. Individuals were assigned to Transition Teams from across the Army, then trained as a cohort at Fort Riley and deployed as a cohesive unit. Finally, toward the end of the war, the Army began designating certain brigade combat teams (BCTs) to deploy as Security Forces Assistance Brigades, with enhanced manpower to man the transition teams. At this point and anticipating that the President will require some form of advisory and assistance teams, the Army should choose its course of action and begin preparing for both the deployment and the long-term rotation of teams. This will have a significant impact on the Army Forces Generation (ARFORGEN) cycle, but prudent preparation now will avoid ad hoc arrangements later.

Fifth, “no combat troops” may not really mean no combat forces and no combat operations. Notwithstanding the policy implications, the Army must ensure that it is postured and ready to respond rapidly with sizable conventional forces if the President deems it necessary to send troops into renewed combat in Iraq. Neither the Army nor anyone else can afford to assume that the situation will not deteriorate to such an extent that the President feels compelled to change course. The Army maintains an Airborne BCT on an 18-hour readiness in the Global Response Force (GRF). It must also ensure that sufficient follow-on forces, to include sustainment capabilities, are available and ready to deploy within a matter of days to reinforce the GRF. While the need for such rapidly-deployable force packages is unlikely and undesirable, the Army cannot afford to bet against the need. If the crisis worsens, it has a high likelihood that the situation will deteriorate very rapidly.

With diplomatic engagement, international cooperation, and a capable Iraqi Army backed by U.S. airpower, it is possible that the Army will not have to face any of these issues in Iraq. Nevertheless, the Army is drawing down over the next several years. It is only prudent that the Army considers the requirements of a renewed Iraqi conflict and ensures the capabilities are available to the President, whenever he should require it.

In summary, the implications of the President’s ISIL policies on the Army are that—far from being done with Iraq—the Army: (1) is facing the potential of another lengthy war there; and, (2) that it will not be same as the last war. Both of these ought to be self-evident axioms: always be prepared for war, and do not fight the last war. History, however, has shown time and again that often the country and the Army need to be reminded of these.

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