President Obama’s decision to send several hundred trainers to Iraq is drawing skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans alike, who say the step is not enough to turn the tide against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The administration announced earlier this week it would send up to 450 U.S. troops to establish a new military base in Anbar Province, to better advise Iraqi forces and to help facilitate the training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters.
The move came after an embarrassing defeat at Ramadi last month. The U.S. had left training and equipping Sunni forces up to Baghdad, but after the fall of the provincial capital, those forces said they had not received any assistance.
Administration officials said it was not a new strategy, but an enhancement of the current one. The additional troops bring the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq authorized in the fight against ISIS to 3,550.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine who served four tours in Iraq, said he disagreed with the move and argued the U.S. needs a strategy to deal with sectarian tensions between the Shia-dominated government and the Sunni minority population.
“We need a serious long-term political strategy for Iraq before we put more young Americans into harm's way,” Moulton said Thursday on CNN’s “New Day.”
“The only way we're going to defeat ISIS is to eliminate that political vacuum in Iraq into which they have grown,” he added. “We're not going to fix Iraqi politics by training Iraqi troops.”
Fellow Iraq veteran and former Marine Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) agreed, adding that the administration was just “throwing people” at the problem and “trying to plug the dike with their fingers.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who commanded troops in Iraq and is a key adviser on Iraq, echoed those views.
“The Iraqi government has not been able to bring all the different groups together. Until you solve that problem, in my mind it doesn't matter how many people you put on the ground,” he said Thursday on CBS’s “This Morning.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi was living up to early promises to govern in a multi-sectarian way, but said it could take awhile.
“You demonstrate your commitment to these kinds of principles not just in a matter of weeks or months, but over a sustained period of time. So we're going to continue to watch closely the commitment of the Iraqi central government to unifying the country,” he said Thursday.
Republican lawmakers say that without a change in strategy, adding more forces wouldn’t help. They continue calling on the president to let U.S. troops embed with Iraqi forces in battle to advise them and call in airstrikes, and to arm Sunni and Kurdish forces directly.
“This president has to recognize the path we are on has failed. What are we going to do different? Because putting more troops alone in won't make a difference unless we change our policy,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), an Iraq veteran and a former Navy SEAL commander who served on SEAL Team Six, on CNN’s “The Situation Room” Wednesday.
Two former top Obama officials also agreed that more needed to be done.
“I think we do need additional special forces to help not only with [counterterrorism] operations, but with targeting. And I do think we have to ensure that arms do flow both to the Sunnis and the Kurds,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on PBS’s “Newshour” on Wednesday.
“If we're going to be effective, we need to also allow our forces to advice during operations, when the Iraqis actually go into combat, but also be able to call in more effective airstrikes,” added Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of Defense for policy.
At the same time, the administration is not ruling out the deployment of more trainers, prompting Democratic fears of mission creep.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, raised eyebrows when he floated the idea of more bases, which could lead to the deployment of more troops. Odierno later reinforced those comments.
“I would say 450 is a step, it's a step to get more people into where the Sunnis are to try to train them. I think as General Dempsey said, we might add more later on if we think it's in our best interest to train Sunnis,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday.
Earnest said there were “no immediate or specific plans to do that,” but if the decision were made, “rather than being evidence of mission creep, it would be evidence of some progress in the ongoing mission to support the Iraqis, as they take the fight to [ISIS] on the ground in their own country.”
Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Tell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' Sunday shows preview: Bombing in Kabul delivers blow to evacuation effort; US orders strikes on ISIS-K MORE (D-Conn.) urged members of Congress to prohibit a large-scale deployment of ground troops, “so that that creeping number of hundreds at a time doesn’t become a second Iraq War before we have anything to say.”
“The clock is ticking and we`re going to get into a Vietnam situation in which Congress is essentially permanently abdicating its responsibility if we don`t do something soon,” he said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.”
Earnest emphasized the president did not want another ground war, and compared the numbers now to under former President George W. Bush.
“There’s a significant difference between 150,000 troops in a combat role and 3,500 U.S. troops in roles — not in a combat role, in a variety of other roles,” he said.
Moulton pushed back against that characterization.
“Military trainers on the ground, I mean, that is really a combat role. … When the Iraqi unit that we were partnering with came under fire … that started the battle of Najaf, which was some of the most brutal fighting of the war until that time,” he said.
"So an advisory mission can very quickly become a ground combat mission. I mean, let's not forget: The Vietnam War started as a military advisory mission."