Despite a series of attacks in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and (probably) a Russian airliner in Egypt, the military news from Iraq is cautiously good. Those who predicted the eventual defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seem to be on solid ground. The recent seizure of Sinjar and the key roads that connect Mosul to Raqqa demonstrates that the offensive against the group continues to progress. The Baiji refinery and surrounding towns have been secured, and the ISIL-held city of Ramadi is effectively encircled. ISIL is being slowly choked, but too slowly. While progress in this campaign — mostly in Iraq but also through attrition via airstrikes in Syria — is real, it needs to be happening more rapidly. Continued occupation of major cities by ISIL creates three real problems for its enemies. First, it gives the group financial resources to draw upon. ISIL is mostly parasitic, funding itself by confiscating the property of the people it governs. So long as ISIL controls territory, it effectively has a “tax base” from which to steal. Second, controlling the cities allows ISIL to indoctrinate a new generation. It is hard to overstate the emotional and intellectual damage being done to the children growing up under ISIL’s tutelage and witnessing atrocities that no child should be exposed to. And finally, possession of these cities is key to ISIL’s propaganda narrative, creating the illusion of success. While we cannot delude ourselves that ISIL will disappear when it loses territory, we should hope for at least some diminution of its mass appeal as the major media theme shifts from repeated victory to repeated defeat.
At the same time, the United States and Iraq find themselves confronting a dilemma. Policymakers in both countries insist that more must be done against ISIL. And yet there is no appetite in either U.S. or Iraqi politics (outside some very small pockets) for the deployment of U.S. troops, and plans that propose such do not pass the political feasibility test. While a U.S. audience will be very familiar with its own “war fatigue,” they may not be aware that years of U.S. occupation have made national sovereignty a very touchy subject in Iraqi politics. Even the recent joint U.S./Kurdish commando raid on Hawija was quickly condemned by factions both supportive and critical of the current Iraqi government. If the actions of a mere 30 U.S. commandos cross a political threshold, we can only imagine the political response to a larger contingent. Deployment of U.S. troops has no constituency in either the United States or Iraq — and it appears that any military benefit such a deployment might provide in the short term would be more than outweighed by its political costs over the long term. Looking back on our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, one might think this is a lesson people should have learned by now.
So how can the United States help Iraq in the war against ISIL without deploying more troops? The answer is simple. We have yet to deploy the most critical enabler in any war — presidential involvement. President Obama should spend a significant portion of his last year in office ensuring that U.S. efforts in Iraq are far better synchronized and that more effective use is made of the resources committed.
Presidential involvement is important in any administration, but it is arguably critical in the current one. It has become apparent that any policy that truly matters to President Obama is run from the White House, and while complaints of centralization at the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) are perennial, they are heard louder during this administration than any other since the days of Kissinger’s tenure heading the NSC. But for any new policy (and in government time, a policy that started last summer is new), White House involvement is key. Bureaucracies do not like to do new things, or do them differently, or do them in opposition to established procedures, and if left to themselves, will execute with dubious efficiency (see, for example, healthcare.gov). The White House has clearly been involved in putting limitations — appropriate or not — on the campaign. What it has not been involved in is ensuring that the actions that are being taken are appropriately coordinated, synchronized, and occurring with all prudent speed.
There are three tangible steps the administration could take in short order, the fiscal cost of which would be negligible. First, as has been called for earlier, President Obama should appoint a Deputy National Security Advisor (with rank as Assistant to the President) for the anti-ISIL fight. In other words, he needs a “War Czar” to coordinate this fight. The position of Special Envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition —held first by retired Gen. John Allen and now by Brett McGurk — has some clout, but it is a State Department post that gives its occupant no status with the critical and powerful military commands and their equities in the region. This will not be a popular step. Neither the State Department nor Defense (and especially its four-star Central Command in Tampa) were happy when a War Czar was last appointed, in 2007. But disappointments in both the diplomatic and military realms show that more efficiency and accountability are required.
Second, the NSC should initiate a weekly schedule of Deputies Committee meetings (meetings attended by the second-ranking member of each relevant department or his/her representative) to monitor the progress of the anti-ISIL campaign. These meetings should be centered on the reporting and concerns of the senior U.S. representatives on the ground, including the ambassadors to Baghdad and Ankara (and perhaps other relevant posts as well) and the commander of the Combined and Joint Task Force Operation Intrinsic Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Sean McFarland. Again, history tells us that both Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon (and again, CENTCOM) will resist the White House communicating directly with the field. But setting up such a forum will both inform the White House and the cabinet departments and — more critically — empower the generals and ambassadors in the field, permitting them to give unfiltered assessments and highlight critical (and unmet) requests directly to the White House.
Finally, President Obama himself should begin a regular schedule of video teleconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The ISIL fight is as much political as it is military. The Government of Iraq remains our primary sovereign partner in the fight, and is clearly the one with whom U.S. national interests are most closely aligned. There has been some communication between the two heads of state, including a phone call held in late October, but otherwise, interaction at this level has been sporadic. This is simply unacceptable for two allies fighting a war they intend to win. When I recently asked Prime Minister al-Abadi if he would welcome regular contact with the president he replied, “Of course. Every time I speak with him something good happens.” We could use more good things happening in Iraq. Yes, presidential time is a valuable asset, and the hour spent on a video teleconference every one or two weeks could be used elsewhere. But then we have to ask — is this administration serious about defeating ISIL or not? It is hard to argue that shared understanding between the two principals in this fight would not have a trickle-down effect, and problem solving might be streamlined considerably by having the heads of state involved, or even the mere possibility thereof (no one wants to be a problem brought up in a meeting between heads of state or government).
In short, the greatest contribution that the United States can make to the war effort in Iraq is better coordination of its own efforts, synchronized by the commander-in-chief and his closest aides. Left to their own devices, bureaucracies do “business as usual,” even when fighting a war. Energizing a bureaucracy to do things differently requires White House involvement. This does not necessarily involve the president taking command (though he, of course, could), but requires holding cabinet departments responsible for implementing programs effectively and with a sense of urgency, informed by a sense of how the host nation government sees the fight. Further, the commanders and ambassadors in the field need access during wartime to tell President Obama when they are and are not being effectively supported and/or resourced.
So for the present, the pressing need is for the White House, not more U.S. troops, to get into the fight.
Douglas A. Ollivant is a Managing Partner of Mantid International, as well as a Senior Fellow at New America and a contributor at Al Jazeera America. He worked for the “War Czar” at NSC-Iraq in 2008–9. Mantid International has business interests in southern Iraq as well as U.S. Aerospace and Defense industry clients.