WASHINGTON — After huddling with his national security team, President Obama announced Thursday afternoon that up to 300 “military advisers” would be headed to Iraq to help the government fight off the advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
“ISIL poses a threat to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to U.S. interests,” said Obama, who added that his team had arrived at a number of steps to assist the Iraqis.
“First, we are working to secure our embassy and personnel operating inside of Iraq. As president, I have no greater priority than the safety of our men and women serving overseas, so I have taken some steps to relocate some of our embassy personnel, and we have sent reinforcements to better secure our facilities,” he said.
“Second, at my direction, we have significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, so we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq, and this will give us a greater understanding of what ISIL is doing, where it’s located, and how we might support efforts to counter this threat.”
The U.S. will also create “joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL.”
The military advisers will “assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”
“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people in the region and American interests as well,” said the president.
“Fourth, in recent days, we’ve positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region. Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL and going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
If military action becomes necessary, Obama continued, “I will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region. I want to emphasize though that the best and most effective response to a threat like ISIL will ultimately involve partnerships where local forces like Iraqis take the lead.”
He also promised a stronger diplomatic effort and will send Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East and Europe this weekend “to consult with our allies and partners.”
“Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds, all Iraqis must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence,” Obama said. “National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across Iraq’s different communities.”
“…The United States will not pursue military options to support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another.”
Under questioning from members of the press, Obama acknowledged that he needs to “guard against mission creep.”
“American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again. We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”
If ISIL can “accumulate more money, they accumulate more ammunition, more military capability, larger numbers, that poses great dangers not just to allies of ours like Jordan, which is very close by, it also poses, you know, great danger potentially to Europe and ultimately the United States.”
When asked if he regretted not leaving a residual force in Iraq, the president who frequently takes credit for a full withdrawal from Iraq, responded, “Well, keep in mind, that wasn’t a decision made by me. That was a decision made by the Iraqi government.”
He also asserted that his administration didn’t misread the danger posed by the ISIL in Syria.
“You know, that assessment about the dangers of what was happening in Syria have existed since we — since the very beginning of the Syrian civil war,” Obama said. “The question has never been whether we thought this was a serious problem. The question has always been is there the capacity of moderate opposition on the ground to absorb and counteract extremists that might have been pouring as well as an Assad regime supported by Iran and Russia that outmanned and was ruthless?”
“…Often times, the challenge is if you have former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who now are taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime with support from external actors that have a lot at stake, how quickly can you get them trained, how effective are you able to mobilize them, and you know, that continues to be a challenge.”
Obama said that rather than trying “to play ‘Whac-a-Mole’ wherever these terrorist organizations may pop up, what we have to do is to be able to build effective partnerships, make sure that they have capacity.”
A senior administration official told reporters later that military action could be warranted “if we felt that there was a target on the ground that demanded our unique capabilities.”
The initial team of military advisers will be tasked with assessing “both the state of the Iraqi security forces and assess the need and feasibility of any future advising teams.”
“This is not unlike many other missions we perform around the world. We have special operators in more than 70 countries all around the world, and they’re doing these kinds of advising, assisting, and assessing in places like Africa, the Americas, and even the Philippines,” an official said. “So, and this is not an uncommon mission for these types of troops. They’re well-equipped, well-trained for it, and that is what their orders are going to read when they get them.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he supported Obama’s decision to deploy the personnel.
“These special operators will assess the situation on the ground, help evaluate gaps in Iraqi security forces, and increase their capacity to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Hagel said in a statement. “However, as the president has repeatedly made clear, Iraq’s problems cannot be resolved through American action alone, or through military force alone. The only viable, long-term solution is a political one that brings together the Iraqi people and addresses the legitimate interests and concerns of all of Iraq’s communities. Iraq’s government must summon the courage to unite and lead all of its people.”
“The Department of Defense will continue to plan and prepare further military options should they become necessary, and we will remain ready to protect our diplomats, our citizens, and our interests in Iraq,” he added.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement that Obama’s “willingness to send U.S. military advisers to Iraq is a positive step, but more needs to be done.”
“We are deeply concerned that the president continues to make political change in Iraq the prerequisite for greater U.S. military and other actions that could begin reversing the momentum of ISIS and improving the security situation in the country. It would obviously be ideal for Iraqi leaders to set aside their differences and embrace national reconciliation now, prior to a greater U.S. commitment to the security of the country,” they said. “However, a key lesson of recent history in Iraq is that it is extremely difficult for Iraqis to make political progress when the security situation is deteriorating rapidly, as it is currently.”
“ISIS is on the march. Radical Shia militias are gathering strength. Iraq’s Security Forces are struggling and, in places, failing. The country is descending into sectarian conflict. And Iraq’s dependence on Iran is deepening. We must act now to help Iraqis arrest their country’s descent into chaos, or the current crisis may soon spiral further out of control.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) called Obama’s plan “a reasonable step to enable us to assess the security situation there,” but “we should be extremely cautious about taking any actions beyond that step, such as air strikes.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) stressed that Obama’s “half-step” won’t mitigate the risk.
“The American people are losing confidence in the president’s stewardship of our national security. Our adversaries and allies lost confidence a while ago. There isn’t going to be a perfect resolution to this crisis. I want to urge the president — for once — to make up his mind and commit to a comprehensive course of action in the region,” McKeon said.
“As part of his approach, the president pledged to work closely with Congress to fund additional assets to Iraq from his new counter terrorism fund. Unfortunately, the president has yet to send a proposal to Congress, even though the law requires proposals of this kind to be submitted in February.”
The chairman acknowledged that Iraq is rapidly spiraling out of control, “but if this fund has any merit, the president’s indecisiveness to date now means he has missed the primary opportunities for the House to consider this proposal.”
“The Defense Authorization Act passed the House last month, the Defense Appropriations Act is up for a vote tonight. I am not sure how the president expects us to act if he refuses to send us a proposal.”