By FPI Executive Director Christopher J. Griffin and Senior Policy Analyst Evan Moore
In response to the brutal murder of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, President Obama said yesterday that this atrocity will “redouble the vigilance and determination” of the U.S.-led coalition to make sure that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is “degraded and ultimately defeated.” What, specifically, does this mean? The Obama administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2016 suggests that, for now, it may not mean much.
Mr. Obama has asked Congress for only a $200 million increase in funding for Operation Inherent Resolve during his final year in office. Adjusted for inflation, this budget amounts to almost no increase at all. It assumes no increase in the number of U.S. personnel deployed to Iraq, and would cut funding for at least one essential part of the effort.
This proposal comes at a time when the situation in Iraq and Syria is deteriorating. Kurdish forces have recaptured only 1 percent of ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq. Although the coalition air campaign helped to drive ISIS from the Syrian town of Kobani, that single effort has absorbed more than 80 percent of all coalition airstrikes in Syria. In the meantime, ISIS has doubled the territory it controls since airstrikes began last summer.
The year ahead offers little hope for a swift turnaround. A major operation intended to retake Mosul and other major Iraqi cities may not start until summer. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond says it may take two years to completely expel ISIS from Iraq. It is over these two years that the President’s budget proposes to hold spending for the conflict nearly flat.
This is not just a question of funding, however, but also of strategy. It is increasingly clear that the United States does not have a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, as the President says we must. A serious strategy toward that end would include an intensified air campaign against ISIS, expanding efforts to rebuild the Iraqi army, and increase U.S. aid to the moderate Syrian opposition.
A successful air campaign will require Mr. Obama to deploy special operations forces to work with the Iraqi Security Forces to help spot ISIS targets in Iraq. On Sunday, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that defeating ISIS without hundreds of these types of troops is an “unattainable objective.” This is because, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, the U.S.-based analysts who are currently tasked with identifying targets for the anti-ISIS campaign “are no match” for the intelligence that on-the-ground spotters would provide.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Administration officials are concerned that action near the front lines "could endanger the lives of special-operations forces and undermine the argument that the U.S. isn’t pursuing ground combat operations in Iraq.” These arguments are becoming increasingly thin. Canadian forces have used front-line special forces to guide airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq 13 times already. What’s more, the Journal notes that U.S. military leaders have “on several occasions proposed pushing U.S. special-operations forces to the front lines, but so far have been rebuffed by the Obama administration.”
Mr. Obama should heed his advisors. As James Jeffrey, the President’s former Ambassador to Iraq, told attendees at a conference hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative in December, U.S. forces would “make all the difference going out there with Iraqi forces.” Jeffrey added that “We don’t have the luxury of having [the Iraqis] perform in an inadequate way, so [deploying special operators] needs to be done right now.”
The United States must also redouble its efforts to retrain the Iraqi Security Forces. Baghdad is working to rebuild its military, but is working with a force that has collapsed from fourteen divisions to as few as seven. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi estimates that rebuilding his Iraqi forces may take as many as three years.
Though the administration aims to train a force of approximately 45,000 Iraqi soldiers to conduct the counteroffensive against ISIS, the program to train those forces is only six weeks long. A senior defense official told The Daily Beast, “Of course it is not enough. This is a confidence builder.” Iraqi forces will need more than confidence to retake their country, but they won’t get it from the President’s budget. Mr. Obama proposes to more than halve the Iraq Train and Equip Fund from $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2015 to $700 million in fiscal year 2016.
The Obama administration should consider a larger and better-resourced train, advise, and assist mission in Iraq, with thousands more U.S. troops on the ground. The Institute for the Study of War recommended last year that as many as 25,000 U.S. troops be deployed in Iraq and Syria to conduct this effort. Former Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell said today that “Unless the coalition is willing to put more ground troops into Iraq, and possibly into Syria, there is very little we can do.”
Finally, the President should take former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s advice: “It is impossible to contain the Islamic State in even Iraq without also dealing with Syria.” The administration’s recent reduction of support for Syrian opposition groups is particularly concerning in this regard. These fighters are, as President Obama said in his 2014 West Point commencement address, “the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.” Moving forward, the White House should establish humanitarian safe zones to neutralize Assad’s air power and protect Syrian refugees. The administration should also accelerate and expand the train-and-assist mission for vetted members of the opposition.
The consequences of ISIS’s rise extend far beyond the Middle East. Former Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane warned senators last week that “Our allies in the region [have] lost confidence in U.S. leadership and question, to this day, U.S. resolve.” Retired Marine General James Mattis, the former head of U.S. Central Command, added, “The international order…is under increasing stress [ and is] not self‐sustaining. It demands tending by an America that leads wisely, standing unapologetically for the freedoms each of us…have enjoyed.”
It is fitting that President Obama pledged yesterday to “redouble” America’s determination to defeat ISIS. But if the President’s words are to have any meaning, he must also act to leave his successor a Middle East that is on the road to stability, not chaos.