President Obama has recently announced that 450 US military advisors will be sent to take the fight to the Islamic State. The question remains as to whether the president has done too little too late or if, in fact, US advisors on the ground will make a significant difference.
The move allows the US to train the Iraqi security forces more directly and also to provide advice to the sunni militias fighting in Anbar Province and other strategic areas.
Although sending trainers and other counter-terrorism support troops is a good first step, their deployment will be useless without flexible rules of engagement and other tools to engage Islamic State on its own terms. Advisors need to be able to accompany Iraqi troops when they go into combat and more effective air support needs to be available in order to counter new IS anti-air tactics.
Furthermore, it is also necessary to ensure that arms flow not only to the Kurdish fighters arrayed against Islamic State but also to the Sunni fighters making inroads against them in Iraq.
The addition of American trainers on the ground is a significant step in the fight against Islamic State but trainers can only do so much. They may be able to transfer skills to Iraqi forces but they cannot give them what they need most – the will to fight. This latest move by the Obama administration shows that the US continues to underestimate the strength and resolve of Islamic State and overestimate the ability of local security forces to deal with the threat.
The United States has been attempting to create an effective an unified Iraqi security force for the last ten years without success. The Iraqis will never be able to field an army that can defeat Islamic State militarily. This latest effort may provide the Iraqis with new capabilities to hold off Islamic State attacks but is unlikely to mean that they will take back territory any time soon.
Fundamentally, it is difficult to tell whether Islamic State will ever be able to be defeated militarily. Their growth appears to be inexorable and Western action only appears to swell their ranks. Andrew Bacevich has argued that Islamic State is much less of a concern for the United States than it has been made out to be.
Bacevich argues that the United States should be more concerned about drug lords in Mexico and other regional threats. He also notes that the effectiveness of United States military intervention is also greatly exaggerated and this certainly rings true. If anything, american military intervention appears to destabilise rather than secure a region.
Although President Obama’s latest announcement may temporarily ameliorate the situation in the middle east, the question remains whether it is, in fact, America’s problem and whether whatever assistance we can provide will actually help.