It’s not clear how quickly the special forces could arrive in Iraq. It’s also unknown whether they would remain in Baghdad or be sent to the nation’s north, where the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has overrun several cities in the worst threat to the Shiite-led government since U.S. troops left in 2011…
The mission almost certainly would be small: one U.S. official said it could be up to 100 special forces soldiers. It also could be authorized only as an advising and training mission — meaning the soldiers would work closely with Iraqi forces that are fighting the insurgency but not officially be considered as combat troops.
The troops would fall under the authority of the U.S. ambassador and would not be authorized to engage in combat, another U.S. official said. Their mission is “non-operational training” of both regular and counter terrorism units, which the military has interpreted to mean training on military bases, not in the field, the official said.
That’s the ostensible purpose of the mission. Now, what’s the real purpose? A hundred Special Forces troops aren’t going to be a gamechanger in an advisory role, especially with Baghdad already being threatened by ISIS. If Obama’s going to risk a second Mogadishu by putting them in harm’s way, knowing how little appetite America has for more U.S. casualties in Iraq, he’s got a good reason. One possibility: These guys are supposed to liaise somehow with anti-jihadi Sunni elements in areas controlled (or soon to be controlled) by ISIS, in hopes of kickstarting a new “Awakening” and getting American arms flowing to the resistance. Says the Daily Beast, “some of the people fighting with Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are former U.S. allies who could be turned against the hard-core fanatics—if they can be identified.” Another possibility is to pave the way for airstrikes. Hitting ISIS from the air is harder than some people think, not just because things are so fluid on the ground but because the Shiite government is an even less reliable partner right now than it used to be:
Ideally, you’d want to base your aircraft as close to your targets as possible, to maximize the number of sorties each plane could fly, instead of spending hours en route to the targets. The U.S. may press Maliki for permission to base U.S. aircraft inside Iraq, if the White House agrees that doesn’t violate President Obama’s bar on putting combat troops inside the country. They also could be based in the Kurdish north of the country, or in neighboring nations.
But missiles without good intelligence to guide them to the right targets are simply indiscriminate IEDs that could kill friendly forces, or even civilians. That’s why some military experts argue there need to be U.S., or at least allied, spotters on the ground—no one is willing to trust targets selected by Maliki’s military—to ensure destruction happens in the right place. “You could put [U.S.] Special Forces on the ground with the Iraqis to advise them and get frontline intelligence and to control air strikes,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who served as chief of U.S. Central Command. But that, too, could run afoul of Obama’s bar on U.S. troops on the ground inside Iraq.
If you want trustworthy intelligence inside Iraq, your only option is American troops. The Special Forces team is probably there mainly for surveillance, to pick up tips on ISIS movements and relay them to American air assets. And of course there’s a third possibility in honor of the McCain/Graham spat, that U.S. troops are on the ground to coordinate with Iranian military elements that are already inside the country and, maybe, to provide a U.S. counterweight to Iran in influencing Maliki’s maneuvering. And if worse comes to worst and ISIS ends up overrunning Baghdad anyway, hey — you’ll have 100 of the best troops in the world right there to help get everyone out of the embassy before the barbarians run wild and start chopping off heads.
Update: For what it’s worth.
BREAKING: Obama sends letter to Congress, advising "up to approximately 275 U.S. Armed Forces personnel are deploying to Iraq."
— Steven Portnoy (@stevenportnoy) June 16, 2014