During his visit to Baghdad on July 11, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the United States will deploy additional 560 troops to Iraq to assist in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
The announced deployment will bring the number of US military personnel on official assignment to Iraq to 4,647 (this will bring the total figure to over 5,000 US military personnel in Iraq counting those assigned to the embassy, as well as those on temporary missions). The latest force increase came less than three months after Washington announced it would dispatch about 200 more soldiers to accompany Iraqi troops advancing towards Mosul.
In April, Obama gave the go-ahead for American troops to assist Iraqi forces at the brigade and battalion levels, putting US soldiers much closer to the battlefront – although still behind the frontlines. The role of US troops had previously been limited to advising at headquarters and division levels, much further from the forward edge of the battle area.
As the campaign shifts toward Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city still under IS control, the US wants to build on the momentum.
The additional troops will provide a range of support for Iraqi security forces, including infrastructure and logistical capabilities at the airfield near Qayara – a vital springboard for Iraqi forces’ offensive. Coalition forces will also assist the Kurdish Peshmerga self-defense units as they approach Mosul from northern Iraq.
The announcement comes as the international coalition has intensified pressure on IS in both Iraq and Syria. In addition to the capture of Qayara airbase, local forces backed by the coalition have surrounded the city of Manbij, a hub for the flow of IS foreign fighters. The Russia-backed Syrian forces have freed Palmyra and are gaining ground in Aleppo. Two years since the IS seized wide swaths of Iraq and neigbouring Syria in a lightning offensive, the tide has begun to turn.
Sending more troops raises the chances that President Obama could fulfill his hope of handing over a liberated Mosul to his successor. But it also means that he will leave the next President with a significant military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, Mr Obama announced the United States would keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
At the NATO meeting in Poland on July 8-9, the President spoke of his frustrations with these long-running military engagements.
It goes to illustrate the obstacles that President Obama has faced in trying to wind down US wars. The reason is obvious: all the US missions in the Middle East have failed so far and there are few significant gains to be proud of.
According to a study conducted by Brown University, the US war in Iraq has cost $1.7 trillion with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans, expenses that could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades counting interest.
The Department of Defense’s direct spending on Iraq totaled at least $757.8 billion. Now it happens that Washington cannot stop spending on a project because it has already spent much to no avail.
«These additional US forces will bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical enabler support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight», Mr Carter said.
Isn’t 13 years of US military presence in Iraq enough to finally «provide the critical enabler» while Americans struggle with unemployment, stagnant wages, and inflation?
Understandably, in the heat of presidential and congressional election campaigns, the Democratic administration needs a tangible success in the Middle East. That’s where US and Russian interests coincide as they have a common enemy.
Today the Islamic State is emerging as a very serious threat. The group controls roughly 68,300 square kilometers in Iraq and Syria.
The IS has already voiced threats towards the US as well as the Russian Federation. With its ideas of the Pan-Caliphate and the export of the terrorist war onto other countries’ territories, including the United States and Russia, the IS has become a global problem. There are several options here for cooperation of the military agencies and special services of both countries, ranging from intelligence exchange to exercising influence on the countries affected by the war with the group.
Air strikes are fraught with the risk of huge civilian damage as well as destruction of important sites of infrastructure. From the political point of view, even though the US takes unilateral decisions on bombing Islamists in different places in the world without UN approval, it would still require at least minimal consent of the international community. Therefore, the American and Russian stances are close. It would be a logical step for the two leading powers to unite efforts. Russia has special ties with the Syrian government and Iran – the country that boasts significant influence among the Iraqi Shia Muslims. Shia armed groups are fighting IS militants alongside Iraqi security forces. Tehran has already sent a few hundred fighters from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps to Iraq to fight off the IS attacks.
Russia-US top-level bilateral diplomatic talks are necessary, as well as resumption of cooperation between the two countries’ agencies on fighting global terrorism, despite the factors that negatively affect the bilateral relationship. US forces already share intelligence with their Iraqi counterparts. An information exchange centre set up by Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria is operating in Baghdad.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 14-15. He offered a plan to join efforts in Syria, including intelligence exchange and coordinated airstrikes in an intensified campaign against IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The details are not divulged, but the parties said there was an agreement reached on coordinated operations.
This may be the first step on the way to a broader cooperation that could encompass other actors involved in the anti-IS fight. Russia and the US face the same enemy and must cooperate on equal terms for the benefit of all. They did it in Syria; they can do it on a broader scale, including Iraq and the whole Middle East.