Challenge for US forces in Iraq: align military mission with the political

US troops sent to Iraq to assess the humanitarian relief operation are coming home, but that's not necessarily the end of US military operations there, Pentagon officials say.

Rodi Said/Reuters
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, settle in abandoned houses as they take shelter in Mount Sinjar August 13, 2014. A US mission to evacuate Iraqi civilians trapped on the mountain by Sunni militant fighters is far less likely after a US assessment team sent there on Wednesday found the humanitarian situation not as grave as expected, the Pentagon said.

One week after the Pentagon began a US military operation in Iraq for the first time since America ended its war there in 2011, President Obama declared it a success.

In part, that’s because it turned out that there were “far fewer Yazidis” – the ethnic group that the US military had deployed to assess needs for their protection – “trapped on Mount Sinjar than previously feared,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, explained to reporters Thursday.

“Those who remain on Mount Sinjar are in better condition than we previously thought,” he said, adding that the US military discovered that many Yazidis actually live on Mount Sinjar “and may not want to leave.”

As a result of these efforts and discoveries, President Obama said, “We do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain, and it’s unlikely that we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops on the mountain.”

That means, he added, that the “majority of the military personnel who conducted the assessment will be leaving Iraq in the coming days.”

So, then, does that mean that US military operations in Iraq will come to an end? 

Probably not, say senior US military officials. Though US troops were ostensibly sent in to help avoid a humanitarian crisis – bringing to 1,000 the number of US service members in the country – “many” will stay “to protect American citizens and facilities,” Rear Admiral Kirby said. “The situation in Iraq remains dangerous, and our efforts there are not over.”

The fact that US troops will be staying in Iraq raises some pointed questions for US policy, and for the Pentagon tasked for carrying it out.

One involved the quality of US intelligence going into the latest operation. Why, reporters asked during the briefing Thursday, for example, didn’t US surveillance and drone operations pick up on the actual numbers of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar?

After all, for the US military to be planning operations without accurate intelligence is unwise – and highly uncharacteristic – analysts noted. As a result, some wondered, more pointedly, whether humanitarian operations were simply an excuse to get the US military back in Iraq.

Pentagon officials were quick to push back against that notion.

“It’s very difficult to get those counts from the air,” Kirby said. “I mean, it’s just an imperfect science. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights from the air are useful, but they are not perfect,” he added. “I think it’d be difficult and imprudent to think that we could know everything simply by flying over a mountain, even 24/7.”

Even so, there may indeed have been “tens of thousands of Yazidis on that mountain,” but many of them left once they had food and US protection, Kirby argued.

The greater question is, now that the humanitarian mission of protecting the Yazidis seems to be complete for the time being, what are the circumstances under which the US military might launch further airstrikes? Could this happen if, for example, the Islamic State (IS) fighters try to advance on Baghdad?

The authority that the US military has been given to “protect American citizens and facilities” could indeed be extended to Baghdad, Kirby told reporters. “I’m not going to rule anything in or out, but to the degree that we conduct any airstrikes in and around Baghdad, it would be under the authority we’ve been given by the commander-in-chief to protect US personnel and facilities.”

That said, he added, “We’re not going to become Iraq’s air force.”

Indeed, Pentagon officials have repeatedly emphasized that the solution to the violence in Iraq is political, not military. 

That Iraqi security forces have been unable to protect their own people is largely due to politics, Pentagon officials note. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki turned the Iraqi army and police into a personal security force, which in turn alienated Sunni citizens.

The hope is that now that Iraq has a new designated prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, he may be more amenable to unification measures to bring Sunnis into the political fold.

If the Pentagon wants to help this process however, the US air strikes must be tied to political goals for Iraq, says Stephen Biddle, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

This past week, “The air strikes we’ve been engaged in were unconditional – we didn’t get anything in exchange for doing them,” says Professor Biddle, who has advised US commanders in Iraq. 

If the US wants to help isolate Sunnis from IS it must first “get the Iraqi security forces [ISF] professionalized and to the point where the secular insurgents now allied with [IS] will put themselves under ISF protection and become co-belligerents” against IS.

And that, he adds, “will require some pretty sweet carrots, and some pretty hard sticks,” the latter in the form of swiftly stopping all airstrikes if Iraqis don’t keep up their end of the bargain, Biddle added.

For now, although Mr. Obama said that “most” of the US advisers sent to Iraq for this latest mission will be headed home, Pentagon officials hastened to add that “many” of the 1,000 US troops currently in Iraq will be staying there.

“It’s not over,” Kirby told reporters. “No, it’s not over.”

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