As anyone not hiding under a rock for the last few months is aware, in June President Obama ordered 300 military personnel back into Iraq to protect American diplomats, gather intelligence and advise the Iraqi military on how to best combat ISIS. At the time he emphasized there would be no US “boots on the ground” (meaning no US troops engaged in combat). He also warned that there is no military solution to the problem and that only a political solution based on an new inclusive Iraqi government could blunt the ISIS threat. As I am sure you are also aware, the President recently sent additional advisers and Special Forces troops to Iraq to increase our footprint there and ordered air strikes on selected ISIS targets.
Understandably war weary individuals, including some prominent Democratic politicians, have expressed concerns that this limited involvement could lead to this country being dragged wholesale back into the bloody battlefield that is Iraq. Before I comment let me be clear on where I have stood on this issue from the beginning. Back when the Bush administration first began beating the Iraqi war drums and the American public began to sway to their beat, as a former Air Force officer familiar with the Vietnam era, I had serious concerns. I believed that Saddam Hussein was relatively powerless to cause havoc anywhere but his on country. As the majority of the American public was fed cherry picked and misleading intelligence information I felt isolated in my worries that once Hussein was removed from power radicals would inflame long suppressed animosities between the Sunni and Shiite populations. Later I lambasted the Cheney’s plan to wage the war on the cheap resulting in the commitment of far too few US military resources to prevent ciaos in the Iraq once the old order was destroyed. Then, after years of war, like most Americans I longed for our solders to be removed from harm’s way as soon as the situation in Iraq allowed it.
Now, while I never believed it was in our country’s best interest to become involved in Iraq in the first place, I find myself firmly supporting our President’s commitment of limited military resources in Iraq. I arrived at this position for what I believe are three valid reasons: 1) I believe that it is in our county’s security interests to do so. 2) I believe that our county’s values demand that we protect innocents and people who have proved to be our friends an allies. 3) I believe that it is in our interests to allow the Iraqis time to sort through their political mess and hopefully put into place an inclusive government. Let me expand on those reasons.
While still a relatively small group of Sunni jihadists (perhaps 20,000), the ISIS militants are well disciplined and have proved themselves to be both an efficient and very effective fighting force. They apparently have access to all of the money and resources they need. According to many reports, their planning is work of former officers of Saddam’s military who have joined their ranks. While they don’t share ISIS radical beliefs, the Sunni militias in Iraq have at least temporarily joined forces with ISIS based on their mutual animosity towards the Shiite led government of Nuri al-Maliki. Together they have overrun much larger, better equipped Iraqi military forces.They are attracting more and more foreign fighters to their ranks every day. Until now they have proved to be more than the Iraqi military can handle.
ISIS is undoubtedly the worst of the radical Muslim terrorist, far worse than Al-Qaeda. They are capable of unthinkable acts and apparently have no regard for human life. Terror has been their weapon of choice. They have summarily executed their captives to send a message to those they will fight in the future. Their stated objective is to consolidate the territory they now control in Syria and Iraq and lands they still hope to conquer into a Islamic state which they will rule uncontested. They have declared themselves to be the devout enemy of the “Great Satan” and once they have secured their territorial gains they undoubtedly turn their anger outward at the United States and other western countries. We cannot allow them to turn their new “country” into sanctuary from which they can launch well planned, well financed terrorist attacks on our soil.
After ISIS easily occupied the territory where most of the Iraqi Sunni population lives, their advance was slowed just north of Baghdad in large part because of the stiffening Iraqi military resistance. Recently they have turned their attention to northeastern Iraq, the home of most of county’s Kurdish population. Using well planned lightening strikes ISIS was initially successful in driving into Kurdish territories before the Kurd’s Peshmerga paramilitary force reorganized and stopped them with the help of American air strikes. In the process ISIS over ran several predominately Christian and Yzidis enclaves. (Like the Christians, the Yzidis are another small Iraqi religious minority.) It became clear that when ISIS forces captured their villages the militants would give the Christians and Yzidis the options of either converting to Islam or be killed so thousands of families of both sects abandoned their homes with virtually nothing and fled deeper into Kurdish territory. Lacking even food and water and baking under the hot summer sun, these are the persecuted innocents of the conflict. As Americans we have a moral obligation to come to aid these people whether it be by supplying them with food, water and other necessities, moving them out of danger, or by striking ISIS forces that threaten them from the air.
The Kurds also deserve our help. Unlike many in Iraq, the Kurds have never sought to dominate anyone; their chief desire has always been to simply to be left alone. When our solders were in Iraq, the Kurds were always their best allies. Their Peshmerga paramilitary is made up of tough, seasoned fighters, most of which were trained by American forces. Unlike many units in the Iraq army which folded when attacked far smaller ISIS forces, the Peshmerga are more than ready to fight for their people and their homeland. Their major disadvantage is that they lack heavy weapons. We Americans can’t abandon faithful allies who are trying to defend themselves against a force which is the very personification of evil. We need to ensure that the Kurdish forces are provided the arms necessary to repel ISIS and then drive them back. If they need military assistance to make that happen, we should be more than willing to provide tactical air strikes on opposing ISIS positions.
However, as President Obama has said numerous times, while limited American military strikes against ISIS targets are useful in blunting their advances, a renewal of full American military involvement in Iraq is not a solution to the ISIS crisis. As long as most of the Sunni population believes that an alliance with ISIS is a better option than living under the current Shia dominated government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the conflict is essentially a civil war. Picking sides in a civil war is never a good idea. However, as I stated earlier, the Sunni population in Iraq views ISIS as an ally of convenience. The philosophies and methods of those two groups are far from aligned. If the current Iraqi government were to be replaced by one which would be truly inclusive of the Sunni minority, there is reason to believe that the Sunnis leaders and their militias would turn against ISIS just as they were persuaded to turn against Al-Qaeda several years ago.
The Iraqi political leaders are in the process of forming a new government after their recent elections. The newly elected Iraqi President Fuad Masum has nominated Haider al-Abadi to succeed Maliki as Prime Minister. Abadi, who previously served as Deputy Speaker or Parliament, has vowed to fully include representatives of all of the major Iraqi population segments in his government. He may well be the man who can begin to heal the rifts with the Sunnis which Maliki’s oppressive rule created.
Under Iraq’s parliamentary system of government, Abadi must form a government by gaining the support of the majority of the members of parliament. However the politics involved has been complicated by Maliki’s refusal to bow out gracefully and he continues as interim Prime Minister until the new government is in place. He had been threatening legal action and some were afraid he might even try to stage a military coup. Now that Maliki has at last announced he will step down, the way has been cleared for Abadi to assume the Prime Minister position. However, it will take as much as a month for Abadi to form a government and even longer for him to gain the confidence of various Iraqi factions convince them that his government will truly be inclusive.
Meanwhile the power vacuum in Baghdad has made the Iraqi and its military more vulnerable to ISIS attacks. To be effective solders entering a fight and putting their lives on the line must understand and buy into the basic tenants of the government they are defending. Based on their performance to date, this basic faith in their government has been sadly lacking in the Iraq’s armed forces. The American air strikes are needed to keep ISIS off balance and more concerned about avoiding death from above than staging additional attacks while the Iraqi government and its military get their acts together. It is also apparent American military advisers will be required to help Iraqi military leaders reorganize their armed forces and plan effective battle strategies.
In summery, I too am war weary and I am certainly averse to again putting the lives of American servicemen at risk in Iraq. I too am leery of “mission creep”. However, I also have no doubt that if not defeated, an if given enough time and opportunity, ISIS can and will mount attacks against our homeland. We cannot allow them to establish the kind of sanctuary that al-Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan before 9/11. If that ever comes to pass, not only would our military personnel have to respond, but our civilian population would be also be at risk. We have to buy time to allow the Iraqis to heal their sectarian wounds and reorganize and reinvigorate their military so they can effectively confront ISIS on the battle field. And last, but not least, we have a moral obligation to protect our friends and allies and save the innocents from wholesale slaughter.
If we can accomplish all of that with air strikes and sending military experts to advise the Iraqis, I can support that as long as the leaders of Iraq are taking the political steps necessary to reunify their country. Without progress on that front, US military intervention may well prove fruitless. While no one can ever be completely safe in Iraq right now, unlike ground combat operations, the roles that our servicemen are currently being asked to assume will somewhat minimize their risk. I pray their missions in Iraq are successful and that not one is wounded or killed in the process of achieving those goals.