After years of touting his legacy for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq, President Obama finds himself in rough waters for a new White House anti-ISIS plan announced on Wednesday. In addition to advancing airstrikes against key ISIS posts, the strategy is to deploy 450 additional military personnel "to train, advise, and assist" Iraqi forces in the Anbar provinces, and the plan also emphasizes regaining the city of Ramadi with the help of the Iraqi military. The plan to take back the Iraqi city is a significant game change in U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS since General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon in June that losing Ramadi "is not symbolic in any way."
Ramadi is a strategic foothold in the fight against ISIS. It is about the same size as Mosul. More importantly, it's only about 60 miles west of Iraq's capital Baghdad, and is located by the Euphrates River and a highway connection between Baghdad and the Syrian and Jordanian Borders. Furthermore, it was the only major city en route to Baghdad that was not controlled by the Islamic State. So, when the Iraqi military retreated their posts and abandoned their U.S.-supplied vehicles, it was a big gain for ISIS and a continued big threat that even the new plan could not solve.
Although the new plan would make improvements on the U.S.' old strategy, it falls short in effectively countering and preventing widespread gains by the Islamic State in Iraq.
Foreign Fighters Are Swarming To Iraq & Syria Faster Than U.S. Airstrikes Can Work
After a month of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State militants were still able to execute attacks on a local council building near Baghdad and a critical power plant in the Libyan city of Surt. How is that possible? Well, ISIS forces are expanding faster than the U.S.-backed airstrikes can kill them.
General Hawk Carlisle, the head of the U.S. Air Force's Air Combat Command, told reporters at the Pentagon in June that the United States has "taken about 13,000 fighters off the battlefield since the September-October time frame." However, according to Foreign Policy's Seán D. Naylor, the numbers do not account for the rapid increase of foreign fighters swarming into Iraq and Syria, which would either match or exceed the number of ISIS recruits. ISIS recruits are migrating to the Islamic State so fast that Gene Barlow, spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center, told FP the most recent estimate he has is that “ISIS is gaining about 1,000 foreign fighters a month.”
Although President Obama emphasized the importance of diffusing the influx of foreign fighters, the new plan does not provide an effective approach in disrupting the Islamic State’s recruitment strategy. According to the Institute for the Study of War's Harleen Gambhir, the vast number of ISIS recruits are young teenage boys, some are women and children. Most of them and are sent to training camps stationed in Iraq and Syria where per training course are issued with “propaganda photos or videos of the graduating class” of about 30 to 50 fighters.
The number does not include volunteers or combat veterans, but Gambhir told FP that ISIS training camps are graduating about 240 to 500 fighters every four to six weeks, later adding that the statistic may be not be representative of the group’s recruitment efforts, since there may be other secret training camps without propaganda material. These numbers are grim compared to the 90 Sunni fighters trained by the U.S. in the first round of training, due to a challenge in recruitment strategy since the majority of the Sunni fighters are Syrian insurgents hell-bent combating the Assad government.
Training Iraqi Forces Won’t Work, Because They Don’t Exist
Posen, in a story published on Defense One, points out that reports in 2014 revealed that there are 14 divisions in the Iraqi military. He later added that “between three and five were destroyed in Mosul, leaving nine.” When it came to defending Ramadi, there should’ve been one division left able to defeat ISIS forces, unless Posen's assumptions are true.
But what’s even more puzzling to understand is the logic in deploying 450 additional troops as a strategy to build an army that has proven ineffective in the past. Like Posen alluded, if the Iraqi military is diminishing, then the U.S. plan to "train, advise, and assist" will be a far more challenging mission than expected. In this round, the U.S. will have to construct an entirely new army from scratch. So, how can the U.S. train an Iraqi military that does not exist?
This Won’t Be The Last Time The U.S. Deploys Troops To Iraq
The U.S.-backed airstrikes aren’t killing enough ISIS militants and are being used as propaganda to recruit more foreign fighters rapidly. The Iraqi Army is dwindling in numbers as ISIS charges on new attacks and makes new gains in the region. With the U.S.' new anti-ISIS plan emphasizing on building an entirely new Iraqi military with 450 military personnel, the chances for the strategy to be proven effective is grim. After years of sectarian conflict and destruction in Iraq, this deployment is just a big plunge into a rabbit hole of perpetual war — expect to see more troops sent on the ground. As of right now, time will only tell.
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