MESOP FOCUS : Former NATO chief commander: U.S. advisers needed to fight with Iraqis, Kurds

By Jeff Schogol  – Staff writer – NavyTimes – 12-8-2014 – The former NATO chief commander and military leader in Europe says he thinks the U.S. needs to put boots on the ground to fight with Iraqi and Kurdish troops against the Islamic State.

Currently, about 250 U.S. troops are assessing Iraqi and Kurdish forces’ capabilities and share some intelligence with them, according to the U.S. military. Retired Adm. James Stavridis thinks that “many more” Special Forces advisers are needed to provide direct assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish troops.

“I think we probably need triple that with some enablers and conventional protective mechanisms around them,” said Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Those enablers should include aircraft, medical support and intelligence, and cyber support, he said.

Last week, the U.S. began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State. While manned aircraft can attack enemy vehicles and troop formations and unmanned aircraft can attack enemy leaders, air power also has its limitations, he said.“You cannot hold territory; you cannot provide advice; you can’t do reconnoitering at ground level — a drone is a wonderful high level view, but it doesn’t have the feel and the granularity of an observer of the ground,” Stavridis said. “You cannot provide significant defensive positions, you can only knock down incoming offensive capability.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is in turmoil. The Iraqi parliament has selected a new prime minister, but current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused to step aside and security forces loyal to him have reportedly taken up positions at strategic locations in Baghdad. Another complicating factor is the Iraqi government has turned to Shiite militias and Iran for help against the Islamic State. Despite the presence of these adversaries, Stavridis believes it is critical that U.S. Special Forces advisers work with Iraqi troops.

“I think we’ve got to pull with the Iraqi government — as imperfect as it is,” Stavridis said. “We’ve got to operate alongside Iranian forces, if necessary, because the greater threat to the United States is the rise of a caliphate, and one that has already sworn ‘to fly its flag over the White House’ — that’s extremely concerning.”However, Stavridis is not advocating that U.S. troops fight with Iranian forces. Rather, the two countries need to be aware of where their troops are to avoid getting into a “cross-fire situation,” he said. “We’re not going to be Iran’s allies in this particular case, we have some common interests. We’re going to operate in the same battlespace,” Stavridis said. “Therefore, it would behoove us to have at least a minimum of coordination, probably via the Iraqi government and the Iraqi armed forces.”