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.
In 2006, I joined an adviser team in Habbaniya, halfway between Falluja and Ramadi, where the 450 Americans are headed. Our rotating group of 13 advisers lived on a remote outpost with 500 Iraqi soldiers, patrolling side by side. Even then, it took us three hard years to mold the battalion. In 2005 and 2006, insurgents were shooting from houses where children were sleeping and blowing up themselves and dozens of bystanders in the market. No locals informed on the insurgents in their midst. Only by insisting on daily combat patrols were the advisers able to persuade the Iraqi soldiers that they could win the fight. We shared the risk; adviser casualties were over 30 percent.
The other key was being partnered with an American battalion, in our case Marine Battalion 3/2. The Iraqis gradually took pride in their own performance, mimicking the cocky Marines and their relentless advisers. In 2007, the people sensed the shifting advantage, the informant network swelled, and our Iraqi battalion, convinced that it should dominate the battlefield, destroyed the guerrilla network.
By 2008, Habbaniya had returned to its peaceful existence as a lakeside retreat. We were proud of the battalion, which became part of Iraq’s first independent brigade. But we were unnerved by President George W. Bush’s pledge to withdraw all American troops by 2011, with no plan for a residual force to watch over the army we had worked so hard to build. Senior military officials were mostly silent.
Now the Islamic State controls the corridor. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter publicly shamed the Iraqi Army, saying it had “no will to fight.” We should be careful about attributing blame. We advisers watched Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and his cronies gut the army when we precipitously left, using it as a sectarian collection agent fueled by favoritism. The intrepid young nationalists we groomed were left exposed at war’s sharp edge, year after year.
None of the four Iraqi company commanders from our battalion remains unscathed. Haadi was blown up in Diwaniya. Dhafer was shot dead by Al Qaeda in Mosul. Layth was hanged by Islamic State militants outside Ramadi. Our favorite captain, whom we nicknamed G.Q. because he insisted on grooming his mustache before patrol to exude “wasta,” or power, became a national inspiration for his fiery battlefield YouTube speeches. In January, he was killed trying to rescue a wounded lieutenant.
Mr. Obama, despite warnings of Mr. Maliki’s intentions, made no sincere effort to leave a sizable number of troops in Iraq past 2011. Now we’re sending in tiny groups, a few hundred at a time, to live on lily pads. That’s no way to instill the will to fight, yet Pentagon officials brag about numbers of “troops trained.”
Before entering ground combat, we have to fix the political problem. It would be insane to repeat our previous mistake and train an army to fight for the current Shiite government. Last year we trained not a single Sunni soldier, and our dollars continue to flow through Baghdad to Shiite militias. Worse, the most famous general in Iraq today is Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian paramilitary Quds Force, which has expanded its reach deep into Iraq. It is infuriating that the road to Iranian influence in Baghdad is drenched with American blood.
Even with a thousand American advisers, Shiite soldiers today won’t fight for desolate Sunni lands. If we’re committed to a yearslong effort, money should flow directly to the end recipient of our choosing — whether that be the Iraqi Army, Kurds or Sunni tribesmen. Our current half-strategy opposes one enemy — the Islamic State — but benefits a much bigger threat, Iran. If we don’t get the politics aligned with a commitment to destroy the Islamic State, our advisers should expect the same heartbreak as those of us who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and our fathers before us in Vietnam.
Owen West, the author of “The Snake Eaters: Counterinsurgency Advisors in Combat,” served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.