June 28, 2015
LAST week President Obama approved an additional 450 troops to join the roughly 3,000 already in Iraq. Living inside secure bases nicknamed “lily pads,” they will train Iraqi soldiers for a few weeks via lecture and drill instruction. The graduates will then be sent outside the wire to fight the Islamic State. This strategy is no more resolute than a lily pad, and our generals know it. It is tokenism that reflects confusion at the top, and it will fail.
Mr. Obama has declared that advisers are not combat troops. But in fact, to influence battlefield performance, the adviser’s first job is to set the example in combat. The goal is to instill in the local force a sense of professional aggression — of seizing the offense — that must be demonstrated firsthand. Put simply, if the president wants to destroy the Islamic State, he will eventually renege on his ephemeral pledge not to engage in ground combat.
Advisers are “combat multipliers.” Small teams of them vastly improve the performance of local troops, at a sliver of the cost of deploying large American battalions. Perhaps because of the divisive legacy of “adviser teams,” who were the first large-scale American commitment in Vietnam, it took years for the Pentagon to recognize this fact. Instead we poured hundreds of thousands of troops and billions of dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan year after year. The “surge” in 2007 worked precisely because it partnered Americans with Iraqi soldiers and tribes.