Obama's handling of IS derided as advisers deployed to Iraq
Fall of Ramadi raises questions about strategy of avoiding using ground troops
Almost three weeks after President Barack Obama said the US was not losing to Sunni extremists in Iraq his administration is sending a further 450 military advisers to the war-ravaged country. The aim of the latest deployment is to step up the challenge to the so-called Islamic State (IS) and help retake large Iraqi cities lost to the militants.
The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s biggest province, Anbar, last month has raised questions about the so-called Obama Doctrine, the president’s broad foreign-policy strategy of avoiding another protracted war that would involve American boots on the ground by relying on and training local forces, combined with US-led air strikes.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis,” the president told reporters.
Republicans jumped on his comments. Senator John McCain, a long-time critic of Mr Obama’s position on the Middle East, said in the Senate on Monday that the absence of a strategy was alarming “while [IS] goes house to house in Ramadi with lists of names, and they execute people and they kill three-year-old children”.
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner mocked the president on Twitter, while his office released a 34-second video of edited clips of Mr Boehner repeatedly calling on the White House to develop an “overarching strategy” to deal with IS.
It is 10 months since the president first said at a press conference, in response to a question about IS, that “we don’t have a strategy yet”, and 18 months since he dismissed the group as a “JV team” – a junior varsity basketball team – up against the professional might of the US.
US defence secretary Ash Carter blamed the Iraqi forces for showing “no will to fight” in the bid to save Ramadi from the militant group, pointing out that they “vastly outnumbered” IS fighters around the city.
Now the US is responding, but not by changing strategy or by going so far as to commit combat troops beyond the 3,050 military advisers now serving in Iraq. It is not even, as McCain suggested, putting US military spotters near the battlefield to help guide air strikes against IS targets.
The plan now involves establishing a new US training centre at Taqaddum military base, in eastern Anbar, where the extra 450 American military trainers will be sent to help Iraqi forces retake Ramadi, 130 kilometres west of Baghdad.
An earlier priority to retake the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, which was captured by IS last year, has been pushed back until 2016.
“These additional troops will not serve in a combat role,” the president’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, said in a statement.
Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama’s deputy national security adviser, noted, contrary to the president’s remarks in Germany, that the Obama administration had been pursuing a strategy against IS since last year.
Critics of the president’s strategy believe that a more coherent strategy is required, not more troops advising Iraqis on the ground.
“An additional 450 may help in some ways, but [in the absence of] a strategy, there is no way to measure that this is a step forward or not,” said James Dubik, a former three-star US army general who commanded US-led coalition and Nato operations responsible for growing Iraq’s security forces during the US troop “surge” from 2007.
“There is no requirement for large numbers of combat troops like we had during the surge and before, but we should put in air controllers and other advisers in positions where they can be effective.”
He blamed the rise of IS on a “conjunction of errors” made by the US and Iraq: the American disbandment of the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion; the treatment of Sunnis by former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki; and the vacuum left by the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.
“The approaches we are taking are not reality-based,” said Mr Dubik. “Taking a gradualist approach leaves the initiative with the enemy, and it is not a great approach to waging war.”