MESOP AFTER THE RAMADI DESASTER : US Congress debates greater US role in Iraq


 Calls for US troops to return to a combat role in Iraq are growing in Congress following the fall of Ramadi. – Author Julian Pecquet – Al Monitor 22 May , 2015

Witnesses testifying before the Senate Armed Services panel May 21 all agreed that the current strategy is failing and that the United States must work closely with Sunni fighters battling the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). They stopped short of endorsing a surge in combat troops — a nonstarter after the 2003 invasion — but argued for a boost in the number of US advisers and a substantial increase in their role. “Without adequate force structure on the ground — and commitment — you cannot get out there and engage with the Sunni Arabs … They won’t believe you’re serious unless you put enough skin in the game,” said retired Col. Derek Harvey, the director of the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida. “And to do that we’re going to need, in my judgment, about 15,000 or more” extra advisers on top of the 3,000 or so already there.

Lawmakers at the hearing appeared to agree that the United States is losing the fight against IS, but stopped short of endorsing the witnesses’ recommendations. “We [would be] engaging in combat at that point; I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that and I don’t want to mislead the American people,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told Harvey. “I’m not saying I would support or not support that measure, but I do believe we need to engage if we expect others to engage. We know that the airstrikes are not doing it.”

The testimony comes one day after panel chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and fellow committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for a military surge in Iraq.

“The disaster of Ramadi should lead to a complete overhaul of US strategy,” McCain said at the hearing.He told Al-Monitor afterward that he would use his committee’s annual Defense bill, which has yet to be made public, to push for changes to the counter-IS strategy. One provision, he said, entails directly arming Sunni and Kurdish forces, as in the bill that has already passed the House.

“I think there are provisions to be considered to be put into the Defense bill,” McCain said. “We want to be careful to what degree because we don’t want to destroy the bipartisanship. And certainly there will be debate and discussion on the floor of the bill.”

Other witnesses said US advisers must be embedded at the battalion level instead of staying at headquarters far from the fighting. They say Sunni forces in Anbar must be reinforced so they can fight off IS on their own instead of relying on Shiite militias that would spread Iran’s influence in the historically Sunni region.

“The military component is clearly under-resourced: There’s not enough trainers, there’s not enough advisers and the role of the advisers is fundamentally flawed itself. The advisers have to be down where the units are doing the fighting,” said retired Gen. John Keane, a former army vice chief of staff.

“The war in Iraq is largely close-combat urban warfare, which demands the bombs be guided from our airplanes to the ground by people on the ground,” Keane added. “Seventy-five percent of the sorties that we’re currently running with our attack aircraft come back without dropping bombs, mostly because they cannot acquire the target or properly identify the target. Forward air controllers fix that problem.”

Frederick Kagan of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said a broader authorization for US troops on the ground could have made a difference in the recent setbacks.

“We have forces in theater that could have made a significant difference, I believe, in the fight for Ramadi had they been allowed to embed at lower levels, had they been allowed to perform functions of forward air control, [had they] been able to go out to the tribes and reach out to them directly rather than relying on the tribes to come to them,” Kagan said. “There are a number of things that even this limited force could have done, I think, that could have made a difference, but the force was probably too limited to be decisive in any event.”

The debate comes as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is debating a stalled authorization for use of military force against IS. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who sits on both committees, said Arab leaders he has talked to have warned against a beefed-up US military presence. “US ground troops against [IS] would be problematic,” Kaine pointed out. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, said the fall of Ramadi isn’t prompting Baghdad to call for US troops.

“The Iraqi government has not requested combat troops,” he said in a Twitter conversation May 21. “Advisors are welcome, and will continue to be assessed.”

President Barack Obama has also argued that the United States has only a limited role to play.

“If the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them,” he told the Atlantic in an interview published May 21.

Others, however, say a greater US commitment would go a long way to changing the political realities on the ground. “The Sunni tribal force is almost nonexistent, yet we cannot reclaim the Sunni territory that has been lost … and we cannot hold the territory after we reclaimed it, if we do not have a Sunni tribal force,” Keane said. “The [Haider al-] Abadi government must authorize this force, and the US should arm, equip and train it. They must know that the Iraqi government and the United States is behind them. Right now they know the Iraqi government is not.” Defense legislation passed by the House addresses that concern by requiring that Baghdad create a Sunni National Guard as a condition for obtaining military assistance. Read more: