How Military Advisers Can Avoid Mission Creep in Iraq

The term ‘military adviser’ is often applied by governments to troops conducting military operations in order to address domestic or international concerns stemming from military action in a foreign state. However, what does the continuing US military advisory mission in Iraq   Operation Inherent Resolve actually mean for America? Will US operations inevitably “creep” once again towards large-scale troop commitments and another quagmire in Iraq?

Military advisers are certainly useful. They fill the precious gap between providing aid, military or otherwise, to a friendly nation and deploying troops with an overt combat mission. Following the Wests experience of warfare over the last century, utilizing military advisers has alleviated much of the pressure on discussions among generally war-averse publics regarding sending troops into a foreign country, with the military nominally there to “advise.”

The first wave of advisers was sent to Iraq to “assess” how best to aid the Iraqi Army in their fight against ISIS. This part of the mission has evidently been fulfilled and has matured into a more active phase which was always planned for and expected.

Similarly, at an international level, deploying advisers removes many of the legal and geopolitical questions direct military intervention raises. Political ramifications stemming from sending troops to a foreign country with an overt combat mission are skilfully avoided. As a result, however, the actual extent of the role for these ‘advisers’ is somewhat ill-defined.

Such ambiguity, while useful in appeasing domestic and international audiences, also creates strategic issues. States utilizing military advisers begin a commitment of troops to a foreign country which may be very difficult to curtail should the war turn against their hosts, as was clearly demonstrated in Vietnam. Since Chris Miller’s article earlier this year on the subject, is there any more reason now to suggest that a comparable “mission creep” is occurring in Iraq or that the “advice” being provided to Iraqi forces is more hands-on than before?


Inherent Resolve or New Quagmire?

In mid-June, President Obama told the American people in a televised address that up to 300 military advisers would be sent to Iraq with the purpose of helping “Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists.” The President was clear: “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.” Instead, the role set out for these advisers in the speech was for them “to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

From bases in Baghdad and Erbil, advisers have subsequently coordinated with Iraqi troops and identified ISIS targets for airstrikes from coalition aircraft. In this respect, slow and steady progress has been made against ISIS. Coalition airstrikes have coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and militias to achieve modest success, such as pushing ISIS from the Mosul Dam in August and recently breaking the months-long siege on Iraq’s largest oil refinery, located north of Baiji. At the same time, different factions are beginning to work together to face the ISIS threat in the restive Anbar province. While not as rapid as many would hope, US and coalition efforts are rendering tangible results.

If President Obama’s original deployment of 300 advisers to Iraq in June 2014 was innocuous, however, there is certainly something eyebrow-raising about the recent increases in this number to 3,100, with the White House refusing to rule anything out. The jump in the number drew ridicule from Jon Stewart and others.


A Creeping Feeling?

In a Pentagon briefing, Rear Admiral John Kirby (recently labelled an “idiot” by Senator John McCain for failing to offer a satisfactory answer to whether the fight against ISIS was being won) announced that the increase was “to expand our advise-and-assist mission, as well as to train 12 Iraqi brigades, divided between the national army and Kurdish peshmerga. As noted, the first wave of advisers was sent to Iraq to “assess” how best to aid the Iraqi Army in their fight against ISIS. This part of the mission has evidently been fulfilled and has matured into a more active phase which was always planned for and expected. Through this expanded role, a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister told Al-Jazeera recently, Americans will be stationed at one of five fortified military bases close to where military operations against ISIS are taking place.

In these exposed locations, outside of the relative safety of Baghdad and Erbil, it has been revealed that these advisers will be armed and will fire in self-defense should they be engaged (as is certainly to be expected). While these developments may point to dangerous new precedents for the US advisory mission, the fact remains that there is no combat mission for US forces in Iraq – only an advisory one. Indeed, only 600 of these 3,100 advisers will take part in this forward-advisory role, with others operating in a supportive capacity away from front lines. To be clear, the US is not unilaterally fighting battles against ISIS for Iraq.

So has the mission expanded or crept? Yes. More US military advisers are now in Iraq and are playing a deeper role in the conflict as the advisory mission has matured. But is it likely that Iraq will turn into a quagmire for the US again? Doubtful. First, the current situation is working, albeit slowly, and ISIS certainly no longer holds the momentum or strength it once held. This trend will only continue with the increasing role and number of advisers.  Second, American political and military leaders are not blind to the issues further commitment would create. Deploying US combat troops to Iraq when Shia militias, such as the reconstituted Mahdi Army (Saraya al-Salam) have declared them to be enemies of Iraq, could potentially create another dimension to this already complex and factional conflict.

Despite its critics, Operation Inherent Resolve has struck a seemingly workable balance  between doing too little and too much. Yet it is also defined enough to avoid the perils of “mission creep.” While military advisers may be giving increasingly more than advice and are more exposed to potential combat against ISIS, it is doubtful they will be the beginning of a larger commitment of US troops or another American quagmire in Iraq.


[Photo: Flickr CC: US Army]


Peter Storey is a graduate of the University of Sheffield and completed an MA Intelligence and Strategic Studies at Aberystwyth University, UK. His current interests are asymmetric warfare, Afghanistan, Iraq, and terrorism.


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