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Opinion: The Two Sides of The Third Iraq War

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Sailors direct aircraft as an F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the Tomcatters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 31 takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77). US Navy Photo

Sailors direct aircraft as an F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the Tomcatters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 31 takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77). US Navy Photo

America announced its overt military support of the struggling Iraqi government in Baghdad with F/A-18 Hornets dropping two 500 lb. bombs on Iraq and Syria Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) targets near Irbil, Iraq, on Aug. 7.

The strike, launched from the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77), was followed by a speech from President Barack Obama who said, “there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government—one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and one that can unify the country’s fight against [ISIS].”

American airstrikes have continued.

Many of Obama’s critics in Washington who have pleaded for military action in response to the surprising success of ISIS in recent weeks are still not satisfied with that, “limited American response.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday morning, that more U.S. bombing is needed and that more humanitarian aid and equipment should be rushed to Kurdish forces defending the city of Irbil immediately. McCain and many others in his party also decry the absence of more American troops in Iraq and paint the policy goals set by the administration as both vague and inadequate to deal with the increasingly alarming situation in Iraq and Syria.

Both sides of the debate agree that ISIS is a very serious threat to the region, but they disagree on how large a role the United States should play in dealing with the crisis. The Obama administration—by all appearances—is acting behind the scenes as much as possible to minimize the American face on the fight against ISIS.

This nuanced approach has been described by the president’s critics as “leading from behind.” The Obama statement is a clear indication that he wants the Iraqis to claim this victory. Developments in Iraq during the past few days offer encouraging signs that this may be possible.

Obama and his supporters contend that a more visible American approach risks pushing our allies in Iraq to the side and further damaging their credibility. By playing a supporting role to friendly Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with American airpower, special operations forces (SOF) and intelligence, the United States can allow the Iraqi army to win on the ground—where it matters most. A good argument can be made that this is the only way for the Iraqi army to gain confidence and for the Iraqi government to restore its credibility. This may be the best path to preserving what America sacrificed so much for to build in Iraq. However, it requires a degree of patience and restraint that is difficult for many in America—horrified by actions of ISIS—to swallow.

Those proposing greater U.S. action argue that this low-profile approach will not work because the threat is too extreme and America must take a more overt lead in both Iraq and Syria.They may be right, but it is still too soon to tell. One thing is certain: There is no appetite in America, or even in those nations most threatened in the region, to form a coalition force to go into Iraq and eliminate ISIS.

Undated photo of ISIS militants

Undated photo of ISIS militants

ISIS is clearly a serious threat, but by most informed accounts the organization consists of 5,000 to 10,000 hard-core fighters. In contrast, the U.S.-trained and equipped ISF, on paper, numbers some 270,000 soldiers. The ISF also has the advantage of a limited amount of organic airpower, access to both American- and Iranian-supplied intelligence, and powerful allies. Why then is it losing battle after battle to an inferior force? A more important point for America to ponder is what does this failure of Iraqi government and security forces in the post-Operation Iraqi Freedom era say about America’s effectiveness at nation building?

The argument that if we had left 5,000 US troops in Iraq this would not be happening is simply a counter-factual “what if.” We can never know if that is true or not; however, we only need to look at Afghanistan, where a significant Coalition/NATO force has been in place for 13 years. Even when friendly forces were at peak strength in Afghanistan, the Taliban still controlled as much as 40 percent of Afghanistan, and al Qaeda’s presence in the region has still not been eradicated. Since we went to great expense and effort to create a massive ISF before we departed Iraq, why then would the addition of 5,000 U.S. troops (who might have stayed in Iraq if a SOFA agreement had been reached) have mattered? They “might have” is the only honest answer.

It is equally possible that had we left a force in Iraq, it would now be calling for reinforcements, and the second surge to support the third American war in Iraq would now be under consideration. To answer Gen. David Petraeus’ famous question—“Tell me how this ends?”—the answer at this juncture appears to be: Not any time soon, and certainly not without a much greater commitment of blood and treasure by all parties interested in eliminating ISIS and restoring stability to the region.

  • Tony

    A very good article! I am for supporting the Kurds, but the struggle between radical Sunnis (ISIS) and Shia’as (Iraq+Iran) for the should of Islam is not limited to this fight, and I see no reason for the US to get involved in it unilaterally. I don’t think the threat of undefined and unknowable possible future terrorist attacks on the U.S. justifies taking sides in a religious war, neither side of which has any love for us.

  • The Immortal

    Does no one consider the possibility that the Shiites in Iraq are not interested in keeping the former state of Iraq intact?

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    Support the Kurds & help them establish their own country. Besides that, we have no dog in this fight inside of Iraq. We need to Go Home! Our own borders need some serious attention, along with our massive influx of Illegal Aliens that ALL need to be deported…

    • Chesapeakeguy

      I agree with that. However, the political reality of THAT is that EVERYBODY hates the Kurds! The Turks have had long feuds with them, that have involved clashes. The Iranians have clashed with them in the past, as have the Syrians. In fact, the Kurds are kind of like the Japanese in the Pacific. The animosity that exists towards Japan because of WWII is a harsh reality. There is an adage that if one wishes to unite all the countries of Asia, just have one of them pick a fight with Japan. The same can be said about the Kurds. They are universally hated in the Middle East.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Why are 5,000 to 10,000 hard core fighters succeeding against 270,000 Iraqi troops that drop their weapons and run at the first shot? The author answers his own question.

  • Derek Smart

    How could have 5000 US soldiers made a difference in Iraq you ask? The answer is: LEADERSHIP

    • Derek Smart

      I’ll add Command & Control to that too

  • MountainFox8

    The term “counter-factual” is used by historians to describe a hypothetical situation and imagined outcome. Unfortunately the term has developed the implication that whatever is proposed, once labeled a counter-factual, is invalid as an assumption. This is a product of a nation steeped in a pseudointelligent notion of “objectivism”. That is, since it didn’t happen it couldn’t have happened.

    This is actually pretty stupid

    Here is what I know as a guy who spent a bunch of time in Iraq and parts thereof above the Hamran Mountain Range.

    When we invaded Iraq, we dismantled its military. That term is true in the purest of sense. One could not find an Iraqi fighter or helicopter left that was operational in the country. When we left, there most advanced aerial capability was a Cessna Caravan with a hellfire hanging off of it. This in a country that borders Syria, Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait, with, major strategic and regional security threats occurring in two of those players.

    We had a clear relationship with the Kurds and understood the operational limitations of that region and for anyone who actually understood Iraq, we knew that being int he middle of Baghdad was far more offensive to the Iraqis than stationing ourselves away from the major population centers on bases like those in Tikrit and al Sulamaniyah.

    We “factually” felt the need to leave tens of thousands of troops in Germany for what is now approaching 4 generations and they are a Western Civilization with a military that we did not dismantle, especially their NCO corps which approximated ours in terms of importance. We factually abandoned a nation with no history of a strong NCO corps after decapitating the leadership of that army and leaving less than a 6 year history of some kind of training in Western methods behind.

    Regardless of infellectuals who throw around words like “counter-factual” had we left just two brigade combat teams, a fighter wing and a SOF battalion equivalent in Northern Iraq we would not be experiencing the things that we are now. Period. Getting a SOFA is not rocket science, especially when you effectively control the terrain you wish to occupy. A determined strategy that “explained” to Maliki that we were going to pull the insult of US presence out of Baghdad and the major cities in the south but that we feel the need to remain in strong presence in Irbil would have gotten some obligatory “save-face” rhetoric from Baghdad but in the end the agreement would have been signed.

    Had that been explained to the American people, who for 8 years only had a diet of everything wrong with Iraq instead of actually being educated of the nation’s strategic importance in the Middle East and Oh by the way we are removing all those troops from Europe since they are quite capable of actually defending themselves after 70 years of US military welfare so the troops remaining in Iraq are actually a zero-sum game or better, well the American people would have bought that. They would have because outside the never never land of political machinations on the Potomac the average American knows that you can’t run a Wal Mart without management. Neither can a military function without leadership so the Iraqis still need us regardless of their rhetoric.

    We will return to Iraq just as we would have had to reenter Germany had we decided that taking the Contentin Pennisula was enough and decided to have a few months of croissant and then get back on the boats for home. For anyone working in Iraq in 2011 it was quite clear that the Iraqis were naked to any threat and continued to need our help. We left no anvil to bolster the hammer we have in Kuwait and without that counter-force there is no way to shape the battlespace.

    So you can use big words like counter-factual all you want but fighting wars is about strategic vision and tactical method. When both are absent, any reasonably sound military counterfactual is as likely as not to have been a better option than what is faced in the now.

    • CAPT Mongo

      Thank you Sir!! I had just said the same thing–though much less eruditely–over on another blog.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I don’t know what the right answer here is. But, I DO know some historical facts. This country bailed out on South Vietnam in 1975. The matter then wasn’t manpower or even bombing sorties, but MONEY and supplies that they desperately needed and were asking for. Our Congress denied them those things, despite promises made by the administration(s) of that time to provide them. Whether they would have helped resist the North Vietnamese blitzkrieg is something we’ll never know (allowing the North to leave hundreds of thousands of troops in the South as part of the ‘peace accords’ was certainly courting the inevitable, to put it mildly). But expecting the South to stand up to a ruthless, EXPERIENCED foe like the North in such a short time frame bordered on the sheer ignorant.

    I think the same thing is going on in Iraq right now. History is replete with instances of a smaller or less equipped (in quantity and/or quality) force defeating ones that appeared to have all the requisite advantages. Germany’s assault on France in 1940 comes to mind, as does the Japanese campaign that resulted in their capture of Singapore and the rest of that area of operations. Our own experience in Vietnam is relevant along those lines. The American Revolution is yet another such example. But, given TIME, and the proper resources and commitments, such trends can be reversed. I don’t think North Korea can prevail against the South in a conventional conflict. South Korea has a fine military by all accounts. But what might the case have been in the 50s had we pulled out completely and left them to their own devices? Obviously, we didn’t let that happen. Any such endeavors like Iraq will always require TIME. Unfortunately, our political realities here prevent that, because there is too much to possibly gain (politically) by discontent with a policy. The ‘unity of purpose’ that prevailed throughout the years and decades of the Cold War is long gone.

  • OldBuzzard

    A great article by CDR Dolan. I appreciate that he stimulates the dialogue by improving the diversity of perspectives. He presents challenging questions and legitimate points without inflammatory language or extremist ideas intended to provoke.

  • Vitonio

    Support the Kurds, forget the rest.