President Obama has directed the Pentagon to “intensify” its military campaign against the Islamic State.
This could involve, say, sending more US forces to Iraq, where upward of 3,500 US troops are already training Iraqi soldiers. It also might involve more support in the form of US attack helicopters.
There are a couple of problems with this direction, however.
Most glaringly, despite Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s offer of more US troops and equipment during a visit he made to Baghdad this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said thanks – but no thanks.
This is not because Mr. Abadi doesn’t want these forces, Defense officials argue, but because other members of his Dawa Party, which are closely connected to Iran, oppose more US forces on the ground.
“The Iranians do not dictate to Abadi, but they are a brake on Abadi’s ability to exercise other options,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona during a Monitor breakfast earlier this month. Senator McCain had just returned from a congressional trip to Baghdad. “In our meeting with him, he was much more agreeable to having increased US participation.”
This dilemma loomed large during Secretary Carter’s visit to Iraq this week.
“There are a number of complex relationships that the government of Iraq has to tend to,” Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of US military operations in Baghdad, said during a press conference with reporters traveling with Carter. “It’s kind of hard to inflict support on somebody, you know?”
Carter’s announcement earlier this month that he planned to send in a special operations intelligence and strike force of between 100 to 150 troops to conduct raids on IS targets put particular pressure on Abadi, says Patrick Martin, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Iranian-backed Shiite members of Abadi’s own Dawa Party have “increased pressure on Abadi to such an extent that he doesn’t feel comfortable accepting [more US troops],” Mr. Martin says.
Indeed, though Abadi is prime minister, he is far from the most powerful player in his own political party, adds Nicholas Heras, a research associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
And of those, there are many powerful Iraqis with close ties to Iran who do not want US troop presence in Iraq. They have threatened to hold Abadi to a vote of no confidence – eject him from power – should he side too closely with US forces.
“This places Abadi in an awkward position where his own party doesn’t back him full tilt, and he can’t put all of his political chips in with the Americans,” Mr. Heras adds.
This raises the question of how much influence the US continues to have over Iraq in the first place.
The answer is not much, says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, former executive officer to retired Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.
“The fact is that Iran has outmaneuvered us in Iraq and has established de facto veto power over the deployment of US forces in the country,” he says.
As a result, “I think in the short term there’s going to be a lot of ‘wink, wink, nod, nod,’ ” McCain said.
But even such behind-the-scenes US maneuvering poses challenges. The US cannot simply arm the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, or Sunni forces that might be interested in fighting IS in the west of the country, without risking, at minimum, disempowering Abadi and more dangerously, severing a US relationship with Iraq.
The Pentagon also had proposed establishing a “National Guard” of sorts among Sunnis in western Anbar province, but Abadi hasn’t been able to push the legislation through the Iraqi legislature.
Pentagon officials say there is currently no timeline for the deployment of the US special operations strike force to Iraq.
In the meantime, just because Abadi is refusing US offers of help in Iraq “doesn’t mean we should stop offering that support,” Martin of ISW says. “We should continue to reach out to the Iraqi government and see what else we could provide that wouldn’t put him under pressure – not throw our hands up.”
This might involve using the US troops currently in Iraq to help empower leaders within the Iraqi military that are not viewed as sectarian, or under the influence of Iranian-backed militias, says Heras.
The US military will continue to look for ways to help, should Abadi want to accept them, Carter said this week from Baghdad.
“I look to General MacFarland to look for opportunities in which we can make an important difference,” he said. “And, at that point, I’m confident that the United States would be willing to make its contribution.”
For now, the Iraqi military is making some progress, slow though it is, against the Islamic State. The forces are gradually clearing Ramadi of IS fighters, with the help of US military trainers.
Iraqi forces are preparing to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, as well, MacFarland said. IS forces have occupied the city since June 2014.
“Although they have their own ways of doing things and it may not always be our way,” MacFarland added, “it is, in the end, becoming increasingly effective.”