Thursday, April 21, 2016

More Troops and Weapons to Iraq, Still Just As Futile

US participation in the War in Iraq continues to build this week with the announcement of 200 more troops, Apache helicopters, and $415 million in new aid for the Iraqi Kurds in the name of battling ISIS. Additionally, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that American troops will now be moved "closer to the action," though the US appears to still be committed to describing them as "advisers".

Naturally, the move is a reminder of how far we've come from President Obama's oft-repeated promise of "no boots on the ground" in the latest Middle East war. Now, not counting Special Operations forces, there are officially around 4,000 troops in Iraq, and The Washington Post has reported that the actual number is close to 5,000.

The new announcement is also a good time to remember that the war against ISIS remains thoroughly illegal. Congress has not passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, let alone a formal declaration of war. Instead, President Obama is still relying on the legal authority passed in the aftermath of 9/11 to go after Al Qaeda and associated forces. This rationale is absurd, not only because of how long ago it was passed, but also because Al Qaeda and ISIS have had a very public split and are in no way "associated forces". Still, the escalation continues regardless, as most Democrats refuse to break step with their President on foreign policy and most Republicans can't bring themselves to oppose a war, no matter how futile.

All of which brings to the question of effectiveness, "Will it work?" In part, the answer depends on one's definition of success. If the goal is to merely unseat ISIS from Mosul, that goal is certainly within reach if the US is willing to throw enough money and bodies at it. However, if the goal is to create a sustainable political outcome in which a group like ISIS cannot gain a foothold, there is virtually no conceivable way in which the US's growing intervention will succeed.

Unfortunately, there's good reason to believe that Obama is operating on the first definition. In a recent interview cited in the Reuters piece, he said this: 
My expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall.
Clearly, Obama is not concerned about the all important question of what comes next. Instead, he is only concerned about his own political legacy, and, perhaps, the electoral chances of his party in the upcoming election. But neither of those require a long-term strategy. All they require is a well-timed victory moment sometime this year and a relative pause in hostilities that is long enough to give the impression of stability where none exists. Then when chaos invariably resumes, it will be someone else's problem.

That's the current trajectory we're on. Perhaps the Iraqi Kurds, with their additional funding and support from the US, will launch an assault on Mosul. Perhaps the US will have to send significantly more troops to ensure it goes according to plan. Either way, there is no solution for the day after. Neither the Kurds nor the US Marines are likely to welcome in Mosul for any period of time after the invasion ends. Both would be all but certain to face a low-level insurgency for as long as they stayed.

Returning Mosul to the formal control of the Iraqi government is unlikely to prove successful either. After all, Mosul fell to ISIS in the summer of 2014, due in part to the fact that much of the local Sunni population was sufficiently fed up with the corrupt central government in Baghdad that ISIS didn't seem to be an obviously worse alternative. While any romanticism of ISIS has probably been crushed out of the local population over the past two years of ISIS rule, the corruption of the Iraqi central government endures. Thus, the idea that Baghdad could successfully govern a liberated Mosul essentially relies on the assumption that Sunnis will be excited to trade the devil they know now, for the devil they used to know.

The tragic circumstances above are why nonintervention remains the only appropriate position on Iraq. It's not an endorsement of the status quo, but merely a recognition that there are limits to US military power. The latest announcement from the Administration suggests President Obama is not willing to recognize this yet.

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