After months of consideration the White House and Pentagon have come up with a new plan for Iraq – and it looks a lot like the old one.
In a statement released this afternoon, the White House said President Obama authorized up to 450 additional troops to be sent to Iraq to "train, advise and assist Iraqi security forces at Taqqadum military base in eastern Anbar province." The US training and assistance mission, which the administration says precludes "serving in a combat role," already has 3,100 troops spread among four other training sites.
Anbar's provincial capital of Ramadi, which lies about 70 miles west of Baghdad, fell to the self-described Islamic State (IS) last month. Much of the rest of the Sunni Arab province is out of the government's hands. The statement says that the additional trainers were requested by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and indicates that the plan is to get more Sunni Arabs from the area into the fight against the IS. Taqqadum lies roughly midway between Ramadi and Fallujah.
"These new advisors will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead, and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the Prime Minister," the statement says, using another acronym for Islamic State. "The President has also directed the expedited delivery of essential equipment and materiel in coordination with the central government to Iraqi forces, including Peshmerga and tribal fighters, operating under Iraqi command."
To be sure, the delivery of substantial amounts of weapons to the peshmerga, the autonomous militia forces under the control of Iraq's Kurdish political parties, and to Sunni Arab tribal fighters would be a substantial departure from the US efforts in Iraq since last June, when Iraq's second-largest city Mosul fell to IS. Iraqi troops deserted Mosul and the surrounding region in droves, leaving behind many of the vehicles and weapons the jihadi fighters have been using in Iraq and Syria.
But Shiite politicians like Mr. Abadi – and Iranian-supported Shiite militias – have so far shown no real interest in arming the separatist Kurds and, most importantly, the Sunni Arabs who feel disenfranchised in the new Iraq. Many Shiite leaders view the Sunnis as enemies of the state.
That's one reason efforts to stand up Sunni tribal auxiliaries have accomplished so little so far.
On Monday, The Hill's Kristina Wong, citing unidentified defense officials, reported that the government in Baghdad "has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks." Al Asad is in Anbar Province. About 300 Marines were sent there with a mission of training Sunni Arab fighters.
Are Abadi and his political allies now willing to arm large numbers of Sunni Arabs to take on IS on their home turf?
On Monday, Obama implied that Abadi has changed his tune. "Part of my discussion with Prime Minister Abadi was how do we make sure that we get more recruits in," he told reporters. "A big part of the answer there is our outreach to Sunni tribes. We've seen Sunni tribes who are not only willing and prepared to fight ISIL, but have been successful at rebuffing ISIL. But it has not been happening as fast as it needs to."
But Baghdad has been leery of that proposition since long before IS rose from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Perhaps the attitudes of leading Shiite politicians have just undergone a radical change. But Iraq's sectarian scars are extensive and fresh. The last round of bloodletting, when more than 80,000 US troops were stationed in the country, left 100,000 dead on both sides and whole neighborhoods in cities like Baghdad cleared of either Sunnis or Shiites.
The key to reducing violence in Iraq at the end of the last decade was a US program to pay and arm Sunni Arab tribes to fight Al Qaeda, and promises that they'd be given a fair shake by the government once the US left. That promise was betrayed by Baghdad, and there is less trust today than there was then. Many Sunni Arabs in Anbar blame Baghdad for abandoning Ramadi to its fate, rather than giving them the weapons and manpower that might have saved the day.
Iraq's triumphant Shiite politicians have also dragged their feet on granting greater autonomy to regions like Anbar that were promised that option in the new Constitution. The White House now says that Baghdad is committed to that. The "US will fully support the Iraqi Government’s priority of de-centralization to empower local communities in line with the Iraqi Constitution. This 'functional federalism' effort being pursued by the Iraqi government is integral to ensuring that ISIL – once defeated – can never again return to Iraqi soil," the White House says in its statement.
The US has a long history of releasing statements about what the Iraqi government's priorities should be. The US has skilled soldiers, lots of weapons, and money to burn. But it still has little influence over a key dimension: Iraqi politics. Abadi's public comments – and actions – in the coming days will be the test of whether things have changed.