Iraq 2014: Crafting Strategic Maneuver Space


2014-08-12 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Iraq 2014 is really about dealing with an extremist group aggregating power, trying to build an army and shaping a leadership role in a volatile region.

The rejection of all groups other than their own or join us or die is the mantra for these folks.

ISIS is dedicated to the violent destruction of those who object to their leadership of a mythical Middle Ages dream which is directly opposed to any Western values of religious freedom, secularism and tolerance.

When you have a group grabbing for power that Al Qaeda finds extreme the United States, Europe and many countries in Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia have a major problem.

When the chance was lost for the Obama Administration to have a meaningful and productive relationship with a potentially viable Iraqi in 2012, the fragmentation of Iraq seemed inevitable.

This is now well on the way.

The President’s National Security team was caught by surprise which is amazing because ISIS was not shy in using terror and Information War as a fighting domain.

Fortunately, the US has the USS George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group 2 on station along with a Marine/Navy Amphibious Ready Group, the 22nd MEU.

The President and his NSC team can leverage the US sea base to influence events. Trying to negotiate new basing arrangements with a regime that the US might well not want to work with, pay money to or in any way legitimize is a difficult challenge.

There is one area of Iraq that has immediate promise of thwarting, rolling back and beginning the process of destroying ISIS.

The defendable area is Kurdistan, and is especially true because of a combat tested effective fighting force ,the Peshmurga.

The leaders of Kurdistan also deserve great praise because of the tolerance and life saving physical sanctuary they provided to the Christians and others.

The Kurds can now play a key role in shaping a relatively stable island in a violent region, and provide an important focal point for the United States and its allies.

A notable difference between Iraq in 2014 and 2003 is the Turkish-Kurdish relationship and the ability of the US to build upon that relationship.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal assessment:

Turkey’s relations with Kurds were once one of the region’s most toxic relationships, as Ankara fought a three-decade war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that left more than 40,000 people dead. But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, Turkey has built close ties to the Kurdish government in its regional capital of Erbil, expanding bilateral trade and coordinating on vital policy issues, including the Syrian conflict.

Security analysts said Iraqi Kurdistan is not only an ally, but is also forming an important security buffer for Turkey that is helping to shield its borders from an influx of refugees and insulating it against the Islamic State militants in Iraq.

Turkish companies have invested heavily in Erbil’s booming oil-rich economy, and Turkish brands dominate the Kurdish region’s consumer market. Turkish exports to the Kurdish government, or KRG, make up the bulk of its total trade with Iraq, which surged to a record $12 billion last year, ranking second only to Germany.

Working with the Kurds and augmenting their autonomy within Iraq, including control of critical oil infrastructure, is a clear objective for the operation of US forces.

The ability of the USN-USMC team to operate without the need for basing rights in Iraq proper provides a very powerful tool set to deal with the technologies which the ISIS captured , tanks, major artillery, rockets, and other road mobile transportation, such as Humvees, MRAPS and their pick-up trucks with automatic weapons in the bed.

These are all visible items of war from the air.

Destroying military hardware, which enables ISIS to operate and maneuver is a key priority.

Isis fighters raise their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the trademark Jihadists flag in Anbar province.  It is time to make them walk and fight from that position. Photo: AFP/GETTY
Isis fighters raise their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the trademark Jihadists flag in Anbar province. It is time to make them walk and fight from that position. Photo: AFP/GETTY

If the ISIS forces loses their maneuver ability and their crew-served weapons and armored vehicles, especially tanks, to seize terrain and key choke points, they will be forced back into the cities or be forced hide in small units in the countryside.

If US forces can see them outside of cities they can kill them. City fights should be left to what is remaining of the Iraq Army.

Even though there are many analysts justifying COIN tactics yet again who point to the Chinese revolution as the beginning of modern insurgency warfare with Mao’s notion of the population providing a sea to hide in, the ISIS leadership is not all that popular.

ISIS actually might find themselves drowning in that sea or being hit by a targeted Small Diameter Bomb!

The point of the Chinese revolution was that the seizure of power did not happen by blending into the population but by building out the Peoples Liberation Army which allowed the PRC to seize the cities.

ISIS was well on the way to fielding an Army when the US finally engaged.

Focusing upon what is needed to pulverize military capabilities of ISIS to move rapidly and lethally, can buy some strategic maneuver space for the US and allies to sort out what kind of aid the Kurds might really need to protect their augmented territory within a fragmenting Iraq.

It also allows the US to sort out what to do with Baghdad and the current regime, which has reached out to the Russians among others to enhance their power position.

But there is more of a vacuum than a system of authority; and the choices for Prime Minister beyond Maliki are not immediately attractive as strategic allies.

Frankly without a regime to support, it is hard to engage in shaping stability with that regime.

Because the US has the option of leveraging the seabase in conjunction with whatever force capabilities might be shaped to support the Kurds, the US is NOT forced to have agreements with a collapsing regime to influence events.

The sea-based force can function as the foundation for a scalable and tailored force, able to operate without the need for the agreement of the fractious factions of Baghdad.

The USAF certainly has air assets which can operate from bases outside of Iraq and provide crucial combat capabilities which can shape an effective outcome.

The US currently has the option of leveraging both our sea base aviation strike assets all throughout Iraq, and combined with the global strike reach of the USAF bomber fleet and tanker support for their tactical jets.

For example, one B-1 can deliver over 100 Small Diameter Bombs, to cite one example.

ISIS will encounter death from above delivered by Air Force and Navy combat pilots, this is war tipping capability.

The ISIS fighters challenged to not send Drones; so we need to let them know that there are other options.

And as additional tasks are deemed important, additional forces clearly calibrated to missions – notably in support of the Kurds – can be involved.

But what we don’t want is a blank check for the insertion of forces of COIN-determined size packages and prop up an ally who is not; we have already done that one.

The US has the option of leveraging both our seabase, and also generate USAF combat airpower over Iraq utilizing tankers.

Those military capabilities can be in conjunction with whatever force capabilities have been and might be additionally shaped to support the Kurds such as ISR drones.

The US is NOT forced to have agreements with a collapsing regime to influence events.

The USN-USMC team has been practicing in recent years in the Bold Alligator series for the kind of events happening in Iraq right now.

There is a Bold Alligator 2014 exercise scheduled for the Fall, but it makes a great deal of sense to shape a real world experience right now.

Buying strategic maneuver space for the immediate period ahead, and pulverizing ISISs military capabilities – trucks, cars, artillery pieces, etc. — are the crucial objectives and is an airpower strike mission.

And by so doing sorting out the evolving relationship with the Kurds and thereby influencing the evolution of the rest of Iraq is good enough for now.

We do not have to own Iraq and build it in our image; we simply have to protect our interests and to have ways to shape the way ahead.

The President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, has made the challenge crystal clear:

It is true that the antecedents of this crisis are political. The same was true of the rise of Nazism. But now that the terrorists have become an operating military force, this is no longer a political crisis; it is a security crisis, and the world must act to prevent genocide and the slaughter of innocents.

Any position held by the terrorists should immediately be considered a target, not just those around Irbil and Mount Sinjar. This fight will have to be waged by the civilized world at some stage. The longer the delay, the more difficult the fight will become.

Editor’s Note: USN strikes generated from the USS Bush on August 11, 2014. Credit: Navy Media Content Services

For our reports on the Bold Alligator series see the following:

And for related Iraq pieces see the following as well: