What Does the New Troop Announcement Tell us About Obama’s ISIS Strategy?

June 11, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Part I of a two part series

“Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” President Obama firmly orated to the nation in September announcing that the U.S. would begin military strikes in Syria as the leader of a global coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

To date, the strategy has not worked according to plan.  In fact, the president has announced that an additional 450 “advisers” will be deployed to Iraq to train Iraqi security forces in a fifth* location “to conduct similar activities in more areas in Iraq as U.S. forces continue to perform in an advisory, training and supporting role,” a Defense Department release stated.

What this new development really signifies is the president’s desire and willingness to help the Iraqis and ameliorate a clear security vacuum, but at an incredibly measured pace.  Critics and allies of the president have called for greater measures to either defeat the IS group or aid warring rebel factions and civilians trapped in the clutches of the greatest humanitarian disaster in a generation.

Some experts don’t think the new troop deployment will even make much of a difference.  “I think it’s a largely irrelevant gesture to indicate that we’re doing something about the deterioration of the situation,” retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told NBC news.  Similarly, former top defense official and CEO of the Center for a New American Security, Michèle Flournoy told the New York Times “This alone is not going to do it,” noting, however, that the plan to train Iraqis at an additional facility “gives the United States the option of deploying aircraft at Al Taqqadum, a base in Anbar, meaning they will be closer to the anticipated battle to recapture Ramadi.”

The president has tried to have it both ways – “we will not get dragged into another ground war,” yet the total number of U.S. troops serving in a “non-combat, training and supporting role” now numbers 3,500.  Additionally, the president has gone to painstaking efforts to end the wars he inherited and now finds himself immersed in a new conflict (partially of his doing as he currently bears the brunt of the responsibility for not originally going to Congress for authorization and later not placing a great deal of importance on gaining Congressional approval, which is customary as outlined by the Constitution’s Article I Section 8).

Nine months into this strategy (without an overt buy-in from Congress) it appears as if IS has made adjustments and the tactical setbacks it faced at first have been trumped by recent spectacular victories in major strategic Iraqi and Syrian cities.  Many have called for a reassessment of the president’s strategy as IS’s territory has grown since the U.S. air campaign against the group.

The hands-off approach of using airstrikes as a means of meeting in the middle of an extremely divisive issue – e.g. war – has not served its purpose to date.  Rather, the president should have either gone all in on one extreme or the other – stay out militarily (or at the very least, provide the Iraqi army with military equipment) or offered the necessary assistance needed such as forward air controllers embedded with Iraqi soldiers to call in more accurate air strikes, which has been requested by Iraqi officials and members of the American punditry.

The same “too little too late” mantra can be said for the Syrian theater as well.  The red tape associated with lethal aid and training for Syrian rebels has forced many factions to question the support of the U.S.  Not to mention the fact that the U.S. stipulates that its training must only be used against IS and not used against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, something that has turned away several rebel groups.

At every step of the way, it has appeared as though greater U.S. involvement and support is akin to pulling teeth.  The same can be said regarding President Obama’s “red line” in Syria – Assad’s use of chemical weapons.  It was believed to be somewhat of a watershed moment when the president asserted that the use of chemical weapons against civilians would “change his calculus” regarding the use of military force in Syria.  However, once Assad used chemical weapons, the president seemingly retreated from his assertion – made several times in the past – and asked for congressional approval for the military action.  While this was the right move, it was done for the wrong reasons.

Despite the measured attempts to appear as though the U.S. is doing something to ameliorate the security situation in the region, U.S. efforts will not and cannot ameliorate deep seeded divisions within the regions constituencies.  While a strong ground force is necessary to push IS out of areas it currently controls, a foreign ground force will do little to settle the differences between groups in the region – a key aspect with which IS has done an exceptionally good job of exploiting to fuel its push.  “If U.S. forces were to be used against ISIL…the battle would probably be over quickly. But the underlying problems that cause such extremist groups to flourish would remain, and troops would be needed again later to battle a different set of terrorists,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated.

President Obama is stuck in the middle – pressured by international partners, allies, and members of the U.S. government to do more to quell the burgeoning threat of IS before they become capable of mounting a large scale attack on the U.S. homeland, while trying to empower the indigenous forces and government to serve their own best interests independently.  However, the region is complicated and alliances are constantly shifting, as evidenced by comments made by Michael Knights, fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “there is a real risk the United States will defeat the Islamic State but lose Iraq to Iran in the process.”  Either way, the situation seems to be a lose-lose for Obama. 

*A previous version mischaracterized the number of U.S. operating facilities in Iraq