No easy answers
Lots of people were asking yesterday about President Obama’s decision to send more trainers and equipment to Iraq, mainly for Sunni fighters. Here is more or less what I’ve been saying:
Q. Why is the US sending troops to Iraq at this time?
A. They are sending more troops because the current effort is not succeeding. The Islamic State has lost some territory in the past year, but it has also gained territory and appears no closer to defeat than it was a year ago. Beefing up the training and equipment, in particular for Sunnis, is a move in the right direction, even if it is not likely the last one.
Q. What does this represents in terms of strategy?
A. In terms of strategy, not much. The objective is the same—to defeat ISIS—and this is a marginal addition of resources with which to try to do it. I don’t see any big shift in strategy with this decision.
Q. How is that going to help, if any, the fight against ISIS?
A. The key here is to try to get more Sunni tribal members into the fight. If and when the Sunni population wants to be rid of ISIS in a serious way, it will happen.
But that also depends on what the Sunni population can expect if they join the fight. Will they gain political and economic weight in Baghdad or in their own provinces? Will they be treated properly by the Iraqi authorities and adequate provision made for stabilizing and reconstructing their communities? There are no clear answers to these questions yet. The military dimension is not the only one that counts.
Q. Do you think the US is doing enough to help the Iraqis in their fight? If not, what more should the US does?
A. Most military experts think an important missing link is people on the ground to “spot,” that is target, the air strikes, which have been relatively few due in part to fear of collateral damage. But putting Americans into that role risks their lives and would raise questions about whether the effort is sustainable. Training Iraqis to perform that function risks its use to settle scores.
Like many other issues in the Middle East these days, there are no easy answers.