Seizing the Moment in Iraq: Shaping an Effective Way Ahead


2014-08-08 By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

To listen to many of the talking heads after the President’s decision to engage in Iraq, they immediately went to mission creep and ways to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Although interesting, except for a Presidential speech and so far a combat airstrike by two Navy Hornets, the mission has not been defined.

The Navy airstrike and employment of US airpower to save lives is currently just battlefield tactics.

Sailors launch aircraft from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Card/Released)
Sailors launch aircraft from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Card/Released)

The fundamental point is to understand fully what the US Military has on station to shape a way ahead.

With a Carrier Battle Group and USMC/USN Amphibious ready group on station the National Command Authority can ponder their next move by including all options, Diplomatic, Economic and Military.

ISIS forced the President’s hand. After a moving red line in Syria and an unwillingness to deal with Syria or to deal with the ISIS assault, the President has authorized airstrikes in Iraq.

But to have mission creep, one needs first to have a mission.

What is it or rather how should it be defined?

It is clear that with the Russians and Iranians are coming to the aid of the Maliki government, there are shades of the past coming into play. But this should not confuse the approach or the issue.

The Kurds are committed to secularism and tolerance. They have offered a haven to the Christians in Iraq, and are clearly committed to resist Syrian, and Iranian pressures. They have merited significant outside support.

When the President was considering action last month in Iraq, he learned that the Pentagon did not trust the forces which they had trained in Iraq. This was a clear statement that the Counter-Insurgency strategy, largely sponsored by the US Army simply did not work. If you train forces for a long period of time but in times of crisis can not come back because you can not trust those whom you trained, it is not a question of mission creep but a false mission focus.

It is not about COIN; it is about working with the Kurds and strengthening their position within Iraq and within the region. We can combine airstrikes with insertion forces as necessary. Earlier we wrote that the US Navy had forces on station, which could be used rapidly in Iraq. The President is now doing so.

We have also written that the USMC and USAF team could be used to put force on the ground with significant air cover to aid the Kurds in protecting their territory and rescuing those threatened with genocide to the care of safe sanctuary locations.

Given the mobility of these forces, they can withdraw as well as appear as needed.

This is a force which needs to not build “Big Army” Krakens and running all over in MRAPS to outstay their welcome.

Clearly, the Administration is focusing on the utility of targeted airpower to support those people facing extermination at the hands of ISIS.

In a White House Background briefing published today, a Senior Administration Official underscored a key aspect of the actions being taken:

We have already provided a humanitarian airdrop to get urgent food and water to the Yazidi population that is stranded.  Secondly, the President has authorized the use of targeted airstrikes as necessary to break the siege at the base of that mountain.  Now, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga are working to break that siege.  But as with the safety of Erbil, if we see a need to take direct U.S. military action through airstrikes to relieve the pressure on the Yazidis, that has been authorized by the President as well.

I’d also note that there were statements out of the United Nations and from other countries calling on this urgent humanitarian crisis to be dealt with.  There have been offers of assistance.  And so we will coordinate internationally so that we are drawing on the support of other countries as we seek to resolve this urgent humanitarian challenge, which is also exacerbated by the displacement of many tens of thousands of Iraqis, particularly minority populations like the Yazidis and Iraqi Christians.

But airstrikes and airdrops may not be enough.

The U.S. does have an insertion forces able to engage and withdraw, rather than setting up long-term facilities and providing advisers as targets.

A tilt-rotator enabled assault force can cover any area where the President wishes to insert a force, and to withdraw it rapidly. The force can help move Christians from their entrapped positions to areas protected by the Kurds.

The alternative is to see a strategic chaos overtake any reasonable U.S. objectives in the region, and innocents who can be saved moved to Kurdish protection.

This requires a commitment to the Kurds, which is a statement to others in the region that the American word is worth something and we do not run away.

The Kurds are excellent mountain fighters; they need help with dealing with the contested plains surrounding their territory. We can help as well to provide the means for them to defend their territory and to deal with forces operating on the plains.

One way to do so would be to follow the path laid out some time ago with regard to Afghanistan, namely to shape an airpower transition whereby the Super Tucanos used so successfully worldwide to help states fighting terrorists and drug lords. Working with the Kurds as part of a transition strategy after dealing with scourge of ISIS, would enable them to provide for their own periphery defense and to put down a marker that Northern Iraq is not a chessboard on which external powers can move freely.

In other words, rather than mission creep, we would define the mission clearly and focus on the means to succeed with that mission: reinforce the ability of the Kurds to defend themselves and along the way deal with the scourge of ISIS.

It remains to be seen what the US can do with the Maliki government and its new Russian partner.

That is a related but separate issue and should not lead to lack of decisiveness or clarify in the current situation.

The Video Above: USS Bush in Support of Iraqi Operations

F/A-18 Super Hornets are launched and recovered aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) while underway in the Arabian Gulf.

Bush is operating in the Arabian Gulf on a scheduled deployment to U.S. 5th Fleet.

The president has authorized U.S. Central Command to conduct military operations in support of humanitarian aid deliveries and targeted airstrikes in Iraq to protect U.S. personnel and interests, in response to activities conducted by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorists.

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