The Skeptics

More U.S. Troops in Iraq: Questions That Need To Be Answered

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced the formation of an “expeditionary targeting force” composed of US commandos to work alongside friendly troops in Iraq and Syria. These commandos, he said, "puts everyone on notice in Syria: You don't know at night who's going to be coming in through the window."  What the Secretary didn’t mention, however, is how the absence of knowing what’s coming through a window in Syria is going to turn the tide of the war.  But the Secretary of Defense wasn’t the only official remaining quiet on that critical subject.

The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep Mac Thornberry, said he wants more troops in Syria.  Earlier this week Senator John McCain spectacularly proposed an Arab army of 100,000 backed up by at least 20,000 American troops.  In deepening a bad trend in US foreign policy, what is spectacularly lacking in any of these ardent calls for the deployment of significant ground forces is any explanation of what this force is expected to accomplish, what it might cost (in terms of both blood and treasure), and how they propose this force will accomplish the military objectives they propose to give it. 

If members of Congress and Administration officials believe military force should be used to deal with ISIS, there are some critical questions we should first demand they answer.  A few of the more basic:

Given the geography, culture, history (both ancient and recent), and an analysis of combat experience in the region over the past several decades, what can military power be reasonably expected to accomplish?  What are the ramifications of an international coalition invading to fight on the sovereign territory of two different nations?  If this 100,000 member Arab coalition is formed, would it have to fight ISIS, the ‘non-moderate rebels’, and also the Syrian regime?  How will they deal with the support currently being given to Assad’s forces from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah?  What would be the risk of open conflict erupting between competing major powers? 

In any case, what would be the strategic objective of this Arab force?  The military defeat of ISIS?  The dual defeat of both ISIS and the Assad regime?  If only ISIS and the coalition succeeds, what happens to the rest of the anti-government rebels in their fight against Assad (and the Russian/Iranian support of it)?  Who would govern in a post-Assad Syria?  How would the interim leaders be chosen from the scores of competing rebel groups?  If it’s to defeat both, how long might it take this international force to win and then how long would it be expected to remain in place to ensure a safe political transition?  Another 7 to 10 years?  Longer?  Are the American people willing to take on another multi-decade operation? 

But before strategic outcomes can be considered, is it even possible for this coalition to tactically “defeat” ISIS in both Syria and Iraq?  Given the half-century struggle Israel has had with Palestinian groups, the inconclusive 8 year Iran/Iraq war, the insurgent fight in Iraq that has continued simmering/boiling over the past 12 years, and the 15-plus year debacle we’ve had (thus far) with the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is difficult to understand how some leaders so aggressively advocate the idea that sending a new invasion force into the Middle East can somehow succeed where all the others have failed.  

How many more decades of war do these advocates believe the United States should underwrite?  How many more thousands of dead and wounded American service members and trillions of dollars are they willing to expend in attempting this mission so unlikely to succeed?  These questions must be rationally answered before the decision is made to embark on yet another military operation. 

Especially one that has a high probability of failing.

Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after 21 years in the US Army, including four combat deployments. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the US Government.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.