To Equip and Advise: Why the US Strategy Against the Islamic State Will Fail
Iraqi soldiers training under the supervision of soldiers from the US 82nd Airborne
To equip, advise, and strike from the sky has become the US military formula for complicated conflicts, including the current operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Two lengthy and bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dulled the US appetite for another war with questionable goals. Hence, the current “hands-off” strategy of arming, training, and advising the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has provided an attractive alternative to another decade of US military involvement abroad. No amount of US airstrikes and military assistance, however, will transform the ISF into the proficient and professional military force required for long-term stability in Iraq.
At first glance, a policy of equipping and advising the ISF in conjunction with surgical airstrikes seems like the ideal solution to a war-weary American public. Theoretically, US airstrikes will weaken the Islamic State, laying the groundwork for the ISF to steadily push back the jihadist fighters. Then the combination of US military expertise and advanced weaponry will provide the ISF with the tactical edge needed for success against the Islamic State. The logic is tantalizingly appealing: why should the US fight a war for the Iraqis, when the US can simply provide the tools they need to win?
But whether it’s an M-16 rifle or an Abrams tank, a weapon is only as good as the soldier wielding it. In combat, an experienced squad leader or platoon commander can be the decisive factor between victory and defeat, life and death. As a result, modern militaries spend years training, assessing, and equipping warfighters with the leadership skills, adaptability, and confidence to effectively fight, lead, and win wars. Warfighting, like any profession, requires significant time to transform experience into excellence.
Unfortunately, a handful of US military advisors will not be able to convert the haphazard and fractured ISF into a professional and competent military in the span of months. A decade of US military aid and training, in the realm of billions of US dollars, did not stop four Iraqi divisions from deserting the battlefield when the Islamic State swept through Al Anbar Province. In their panicked retreat, abandoned weapons and vehicles largely provided by the US military fell into the hands of the Islamic State. Furthermore, during the tenure of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, corruption, cronyism, and institutional decay crippled the ISF as a fighting force. This most recent campaign in arming and training the ISF is merely a re-packaging of previously ineffective security sector reform.
The grim reality is that the ISF is ill-prepared to execute the joint combined arms operations required to expel the Islamic State from populous urban centers like Mosul and Tikrit. A US military advisor can prepare battle plans, provide intelligence, and coordinate air-support from US drones and fixed-wing assets. Regardless of US assistance though, there is no guarantee an Iraqi commander will be able to execute the battle plan or even that all of his soldiers will report for the battle. Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert, argued that “If the Iraqi Army withers and runs when attacked, limited airstrikes will ultimately do little to push ISIS back.” Subsequently, doubts about the competency of the ISF have indefinitely postponed plans for the US-led offensive to retake Mosul. While Iraqi forces were recently successful in taking Tikrit, Mosul is simply too mammoth of a task for them to successfully achieve at this time; an operation to retake Mosul would be significantly more complex as the city is eight times the population and size of Tikrit.
Furthermore, the US policy of surgical airstrikes provides limited utility in the long-term. By nature, air power cannot occupy or reclaim territory, but simply weaken the adversary. In the best-case scenario, US airstrikes will provide the necessary battlefield advantage for the ISF to defeat the Islamic State. Any use of force, however, even limited force, divorced from a wider strategy is inherently meaningless. Even if US airstrikes could deliver a decisive victory to the ISF, success on the battlefield will translate into little if the country spirals back into civil strife between the Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis. In the absence of a comprehensive long-term strategy for Iraq, military success will achieve nothing. The NATO aerial campaign in Libya and the ensuing civil strife offers a poignant example of the limitations and dangers of aerial campaigns without long-term strategies.
Ultimately, the US strategy of “equip and advise” will only produce tactical and temporary gains against the Islamic State. Militaries rarely have the luxury of learning how to win wars while in the middle of one. With the right training and enough time, the ISF may one day become the proficient military needed to provide security for the region. Yet a capable fighting force is not created overnight, and the US cannot expect the Iraqis to transform into one within the foreseeable future. A comparable US strategy employed in Yemen of airstrikes combined with military assistance has failed in spectacular fashion. The US-backed regime collapsed as Houthis militias, al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and apparently now the Islamic State, only expand their territory and influence. In the end, if the US strategy remains a superficial “equip and advise” mission, all the United States will achieve is the illusion of decisive action without any lasting gains.
Photo by US Army (public domain)