Iraqi Kurdish forces take position June 29 as they fight jihadist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the Iraqi village of Bashir. (Karim Sahib / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham says he would launch a three-tiered military campaign against a violent Sunni group in Syria and Iraq “tomorrow.” But would his hawkish plan work?
The South Carolina Republican, a Senate Armed Services Committee member described how to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a “chicken-and-egg” quandary in a conversation with CongressWatch.
To Graham, the matter largely is a question of whether the United States should launch air strikes against ISIL forces and training camps in Iraq and Syria before or after Iraq’s Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders have reached a political accord.
“I think so,” Graham said of using U.S. aircraft to hit ISIL before a government takes shape.
“I think that gives more space to create a new government,” he said before Congress left for its July 4 recess.
Graham and other Senate hawks, like his “Three Amigos” running mate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are aligned with President Obama on one point: Resisting sending large numbers of American ground troops back to Iraq.
“I think you’d need a ground component to make [airstrikes] effective, but I don’t think you need ground combat troops,” Graham said. “I think airstrikes, in coordination with a new government, would be enough.”
Here’s Graham’s three-part military strategy, in his own words:
“I’d hit [ISIL] on three fronts. I’d hit [ISIL] with air strikes inside Syria, where they are training people and are operating with impunity. The targets would be large training bases. I’d hit them tomorrow. I’d try to get the Kurds to join the fight. As part of a political deal, I’d try to get the Kurds to contribute some forces to push from the north [of Baghdad]. Re-constitute the Iraqi army to push from the south. I’d hit ’em in Syria with American and regional airpower.”
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and helped edit the service’s counterinsurgency manual, called Graham’s approach “pretty sound, militarily.”
Mansoor, now a political science professor at Ohio State University, said American “drones, attack helicopters, and other kinds of air power” would be needed to make Graham’s plan effective.
“Back in 2006, 2007 and 2008, it was clear the tribes needed U.S. support to defeat [al-Qaida in Iraq] — both air and ground.”
James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010-12, says U.S. airstrikes in Iraq would be effective “under certain circumstances.”
ISIL forces are operating in “highly mobile columns of personnel rolling around the countryside in pickup trucks and lightly armored vehicles attacking government positions, trying to get to the north and get to the south of Baghdad,” Jeffrey said.
“They lend themselves, once you have the intelligence assets up in the air — and we’ve had about two weeks to get them there — to airstrikes,” Jeffrey said.
He then pointed to one weakness in Graham’s plan: How to do more than simply stop ISIL’s march?
“What you cannot do with airstrikes is retake territory,” the former ambassador said. “To do that, you have to have ground forces, and the ground forces have to be from that region. ... People don’t want to have outsiders coming in an occupying their country. This has to be something that is led by the Sunni Arabs and the other Iraqis.”
Experts agree with Graham that without a sizable U.S. ground force, the Iraqi army is key to defeating ISIL. But rebuilding an Iraqi force that, in large part, ran away instead of fighting ISIL’s June advance across western Iraq will be a major challenge.
“I think it will be difficult for the Iraqi army to take back control lost without U.S. support, and support from its own people,” Mansoor said.
Experts place most of the blame for the shoddy shape of the Iraqi military on embattled President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia.
“The Iraqi army was turned by al-Maliki into a personal protective force,” Mansoor said. “He replaced competent military leaders with political cronies. The army needs major reforms ... if it is going to fight a militarily competent enemy like ISIL,” which he noted “has been fighting in Iraq since the early days of the Iraq war, and has lot of military expertise.”
A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report summarized the Iraqi military in less-than-inspiring terms.
“The Iraqi army continues to lack adequate logistical and intelligence capabilities,” according to the report, authored by Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai. “It suffers from political interference in command positions, the sale of other positions at every level and other forms of corruption, a failure to maintain the facilities and systems transferred by the U.S., and a host of other issues.”
Jeffrey echoes Graham’s call for U.S. force in Iraq to beat back ISIL.
“It is very hard to explain to Iraqis why we are not doing anything militarily on the ground in Iraq against ISIL. I cannot explain that, either,” said Jeffrey, now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute on Eastern Policy. “I think it’s important ... for us to use some military force to stop these people from moving forward.”
The Obama administration has sent nearly 800 American troops back to Iraq, saying those forces will support and train Iraqi ones — but not get involved in direct action against ISIL. The president has said any U.S. force — meaning airstrikes — will come only if Iraqi leaders agree on a new political plan.
Part of Graham’s battle plan, he acknowledges, is dependent on Maliki stepping down or being replaced.
“It only works if you have a government in Baghdad that people would fight for,” Graham said. “The Sunnis are not going to partner with Maliki, that’s not a possibility. The question is whether they’re willing to partner with anybody. Has the hatred on both sides gotten so strong that you can’t get a deal?”
Jeffrey cautioned against any U.S. strikes that might even give off the notion Washington is backing Maliki.
“We cannot use U.S. airpower, Mr. Maliki’s agenda, or to re-take the Sunni areas because that will require further first, as [Obama] has said, a unified government,” Jeffrey said Thursday morning on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program.
Mansoor said “what’s missing from the senator’s military plan is the political piece.”
“You need the Sunnis and Kurds to turn against [ISIL], as they did the insurgency in 2007 and 2008,” said Mansoor. “You can’t do that without a new government in Baghdad that includes all groups and ethnicities. Once you get all the tribes to buy into a new political way forward, it becomes easier to do the military mission laid out by Sen. Graham.”
Jeffrey predicts there is a “real possibility” that Iraq splits into three “de-facto states,” a Kurdish-controlled north, an “ISIL state” in the center, and a Shia region in the south.
“It won’t work very well,” Jeffrey said. “All three entities will be, to one degree or another, at odds with each other.
“The question is will Maliki step aside,” he said. If Maliki clings to power, Jeffrey said that question will then become: “Are there enough votes to push him out?”