By Robert Burns ,AP
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s decision to send still more American troops to Iraq, and to put military advisers closer to the front lines against the Islamic State, fits a pattern of ever-deepening involvement in a country whose war Obama exited with supposed finality in December 2011.
From the initial contingent of 170 U.S. soldiers who entered Baghdad as advisers in June 2014, after the Islamic State overran much of northern and western Iraq and seemed poised to threaten Baghdad, the troop total jumped to 1,550 six months later. It topped 3,000 in April 2015 and then edged higher. The latest increase announced Monday by Defense Secretary Ash Carter pushes the authorized total above 4,000. More increases seem likely.
What the Pentagon calls “tightening the noose” on the militants, critics call indecisive steps with limited chance to succeed.
One of the most vocal critics of Obama’s Iraq policy, Republican Senator John McCain, dismissed Carter’s announcement that the U.S. would send another 217 troops to Iraq in support of the Iraqi security forces’ preparation for an assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.
“Grudging incrementalism,” McCain called it.
Patrick Martin, an Iraq specialist at the Institute for the Study of War, is skeptical that the U.S. approach is sufficiently aggressive.
“The addition of 217 advisers … is not going to be nearly enough to actually make a significant difference on the ground in the near future,” he said in an interview. On the other hand, the U.S. offer to fly Apache attack helicopters in support of an Iraqi advance toward Mosul is a significant move, Martin said, noting that it would be the first time the Iraqis have accepted that kind of support since U.S. forces returned to Iraq in 2014.
Obama’s approach in Iraq has been tempered not just by his pledge to end U.S. military involvement there after he took office in 2009 but also by the Iraqis’ own political failings, which even now cast doubt on the durability of any battlefield victories U.S. troops can help the Iraqis achieve. In 2007, at the peak of the Iraq war, the U.S. had about 170,000 troops there.
Rather than commit large ground combat units to Iraq or Syria, Obama in 2014 opted for providing a support role on the ground, backed by bombing from the air. Obama was on his way Tuesday to Saudi Arabia to encourage Gulf Arab countries to contribute more to the battle in Iraq.
Nearly two years later, the Islamic State has been weakened and squeezed but remains a credible threat. It not only holds territory in Iraq and Syria but also has spread to Libya and Afghanistan while launching deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels.