By PHILIP EWING
The military moves on Iraq announced Thursday by President Barack Obama are aimed at getting a coherent picture of what’s happening there, officials said — not to quickly turn the tide against the Islamic extremists who have swept across the country.
The first few dozen of about 300 special operations advisers will arrive in Iraq “very soon,” senior administration officials told reporters after the president’s announcement at the White House, but they will not be undertaking missions against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or are equipped to direct potential American airstrikes.
Those troops typically do not carry out the same kind of operations as the secretive Delta Force or the Navy SEALs and are not likely to act directly against ISIL. Instead, as more of the 300 troops arrive in Iraq, they’ll begin working with Iraqi commanders to recommend plans of attack against the insurgents and recommend to the Pentagon and White House how best to help Baghdad deal with the threat.
The Defense Department has not been ordered to prepare for airstrikes, the senior administration official said, but Obama made clear earlier Thursday that they remain an option once U.S. commanders get a better grasp of the situation on the ground.
In fact, administration officials did not rule out the possibility that the president could order airstrikes on Iraq or Syria given that ISIL’s area of influence crosses the border between the two. But the focus now is on getting better intelligence about Iraqi forces’ capabilities and the threat ISIL poses to Baghdad and the Iraqi south.
Also meant to improve American situational awareness is what administration officials called “intensified” flights by both manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft over ISIL’s positions. Some areas are now covered around the clock, one official said.
Using lessons learned the hard way earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan, American commanders are likely using drones to try to fix the positions of local commanders or other important decision makers to get a sense of their habits and intentions. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told senators on Wednesday that Iraq asked for American air support in its campaign. So if Obama eventually approves lethal action, American drones could try to decapitate ISIL’s detachments.
But the U.S. does not yet have good enough intelligence about the terrorist network to do that. “It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then striking it,” Dempsey told the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. The Special Forces troops heading to Iraq and the increased surveillance flights could be tasked with helping clarify that picture.
At a White House news conference announcing the U.S. actions, Obama said he’s mindful that American conflicts have begun before with only small groups of advisers.
“We always have to guard against mission creep,” the president said. And he emphasized to reporters that American military power cannot fix what is essentially a regional religious conflict and an Iraqi political dilemma.
“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq,” he said. “Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”
Critics pounced on Obama’s concession — one lesson of Iraq, they argued, was that it revealed the limits of what American troops can achieve in a country that can’t — or won’t — settle its own internal political differences.
“The president’s announcement today on Iraq signaled a dangerous escalation of U.S. military involvement in a problem the president himself has said has no military solution,” said Stephen Miles, the coordinator of the left-leaning Win Without War coalition. “What is needed in Iraq is a political solution, and any U.S. support must only be made after changes to the policies of Prime Minister Maliki that are fueling sectarian tensions and growing this conflict.”
American University professor Gordon Adams, who was a top national security budget official in the Clinton administration, asked whether Obama’s commitment would be able to make a difference when Iraq’s own troops won’t fight.
“Three hundred U.S. advisers will not be able to quickly turn around an Iraqi military that has folded like a cheap suit,” Adams said. Not only that, Obama’s vow to use a new American counter-terrorism fund to help the Iraqis is predicated upon a proposal months away from becoming reality — if it ever does.
“He is promising financial support to Iraq that he does not have,” Adams said. “The $5 billion Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund he is counting on does not exist. There is no such fund … His West Point speech provided no details on that fund; there has, to date, been no administration request for either the statutory authorities that would create that fund or the budget that would provide its money.”