When the clock ticks down on Barack Obama’s presidency, five years will have passed since he officially pulled U.S. combat forces from Iraq. But little by little, American troops are returning—thanks to the Islamic State group and their hold over parts of the region.
On Monday, Obama said another 250 special forces and support personnel would go to northern Syria, augmenting the 50 or so commandos already training local militias there. Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said another 217 U.S. forces would go to Iraq as advisers, pushing the official total count in that country to 4,087. Critics say such “creeping incrementalism” in the counter-I.S. fight is too little, too late.
“The deployment of 250 additional U.S. military forces to Syria is a welcome development, but one that is long overdue and ultimately insufficient,” said Senator John McCain, a Republican critic of Obama’s war plans. “Another reluctant step down the dangerous road of gradual escalation will not undo the damage in Syria to which this administration has borne passive witness,” he added.
The I.S. group emerged in Iraq and Syria in 2014 amid political chaos across the region, fueled by the Syrian civil war, in which more than 270,000 people have been killed. Obama—elected on a promise of pulling U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan—does not want to plunge the United States into another ground war in the Muslim world.
While the troop presence in Iraq is tiny compared to the height of the Iraq War, when the United States had nearly 160,000 in-country troops during the “surge,” it tests Obama’s pledge. The Syria plan is to train Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces to expel the I.S. group. In Iraq, U.S. advisers are working with the Iraqi security forces.
U.S. advisers are not in frontline combat roles, and the Obama administration says it is not committing combat troops, even though U.S. forces have already engaged in limited combat and two American military personnel have been killed in Iraq. “You are not going to see an American battalion going into battle, but you will see advisers in the middle of battles,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer now with The Soufan Group consultancy. He predicted that even the relatively modest goal of training locals to fight the I.S. group in Syria will fail, given that country’s chaos. “It never works. Training and advising your way out of a civil war has never, ever worked,” he said. “It didn’t work when we had unlimited resources and money in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we are going to try to do it in the middle of a raging civil war where we don’t even have an ally.”
Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry believes Obama is hindering the Pentagon as it fights the I.S. group. “The description of creeping incrementalism is exactly right,” Thornberry told defense reporters last week. “When you do that, that gives a chance for the enemy to adjust, for their narrative to continue to expand, and it makes it harder to ultimately be successful, and it dispirits your allies.”
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook stressed the strategy builds on success, rather than enabling “mission creep.”
“We have seen the momentum in recent weeks, we have seen what has been successful and these actions, these accelerants, reflect decisions made based on success on the ground. We want to build on that success,” Cook said.
In addition to extra troops in Iraq, Carter said the United States had offered to fly Apache helicopters to support an eventual Iraqi push into Mosul, which the I.S. group seized in 2014.
The U.S.-led coalition against the I.S. group centers on plane and drone strikes, and Carter has stressed the importance of working with locals to help call in targets. Coalition planes and drones have conducted nearly 12,000 airstrikes and dealt the jihadists some significant blows, including the recapture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi. But the extremists retain control of parts of Iraq and Syria and have expanded into Libya.
Pressure on Obama to end the bloodshed is increasing in the United States and from European allies who want to halt the massive influx of refugees from the region. Many of Obama’s critics have called for a no-fly zone. But Obama insists the measure is impractical, expensive and would require large numbers of troops to take over a chunk of Syria.