July 12, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: More U.S. Troops in Iraq
After nearly two years of intermittent and frustratingly slow progress, the military campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq is gathering speed. On July 11, the U.S. Secretary of Defense made a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he announced that an additional 560 U.S. military personnel were headed to Iraq. The deployment is a rapid follow-up to the July 9 retaking of an airfield near Qayyarah by Iraqi armored units. The Qayyarah airfield will play a significant role in the looming battle to recapture Mosul and Tal Afar. The Iraqi government and the anti-Islamic State coalition do not want the military successes against the group to race far ahead of their capacity to deal with the resulting humanitarian crises. Maintaining momentum, however, will be essential.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)—empowered by U.S. air, advisory, and logistical support—are nearing a tipping point in the battle against the Islamic State. At almost every stage in the last two years of conflict, the terrorist group has initially fought to hold towns and cities, but then melted away in the face of overwhelming opposition. The Islamic State was never a fully capable or sustainable military power—though neither was the Iraqi military, as evidenced by its 2014 collapse. The Iraqi military's overall capacity remains deficient, but enough units have reached a level of proficiency to force the Islamic State on a sustained decline.
Due to the nature and location of the fight against the Islamic State, the increasing numbers of foreign troops—specifically American—are largely kept out of public sight and mind. The number of U.S. military personnel is as much an Iraqi political consideration as it is a military one. The presence of foreign troops is an understandably combustible issue for Iraq; the scars of past battles are, for many Iraqis, equal to current battles against the Islamic State. Indeed, there is a sizable percentage of Iraqis who believe the U.S. and other foreign powers are in some way supporting the Islamic State as a disruptive wedge against a stable Iraq.
The relative remoteness of bases such as Makhmour and Qayyarah near Mosul, and Taqqadum in Anbar to the south, dampens the socio-political cost of foreign troops while maintaining the military benefits. The growing number of U.S. troops is still a fraction of the number seen during the Iraq War and its years-long aftermath. Including temporarily assigned personnel, the number of troops is likely still below 6,500. The U.S. is adding personnel at specific times and locations to contribute just enough weight to reach the next tipping point. To date, this approach has been sustainable and successful.
Mosul, the Iraqi capital of the Islamic State, is now effectively squeezed between the northern Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the southern ISF; the U.S.-led coalition is aiding both groups in what will be a pincer strategy to retake Iraq’s second largest city. The combined effect of U.S. artillery and rocket systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and joint coalition and Iraqi air assets supporting the advancing ground troops, will ultimately prove too much for Islamic State defenses.
The consequences of a military siege on Mosul are profound for the sizable number of civilians trapped in the city. The refugees from Fallujah are already overwhelming current aid and relief capabilities; Mosul could be far worse. The complexities of maintaining military momentum while providing for humanitarian and political considerations are daunting.
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