To begin with, this is not simply a fight against the Islamic State. In fact, the key center of gravity in this campaign is to create something approaching a unified Iraq that is not dependent on Iran, or divided into Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunni, and Kurd. There can be no meaningful military victory in Iraq without Iraqi political stability, and changes in the quality and equity of governance that offer every major faction hope and an incentive to cooperate. Moreover, there can be no meaningful military victory unless these changes create a structure of Iraqi security forces that can win back and then secure all of the country.
Iraq still has effective combat units in spite of Maliki, but it is going to need forward Special Forces, ranger-type troops, and other teams of experts to help coordinate, train, and link ground and air power. These need to be embedded at the combat unit level, they need to be armed, they need to be capable of self-defense, and they need to be prepared to take casualties and have medical aid....Doing it their way—rather than trying to make them do it our way in spite of cost and major cultural differences—is critical. However, helping them change “doing it their way” to deal with maneuver, combined operations, land-air warfare, and develop leadership in complex operations is critical. This can only be done forward and in combat. “Force generation” in the rear is equally necessary, but is never enough. It does take a limited number of U.S. “boots of the ground” that will effectively be in combat to make the difference.
This is the plan and the risk the administration should have presented to Congress from the start. This is the level of U.S. involvement in Iraq the President should have had the courage to explain and defend. This is the level of U.S. “boots on the ground” the Congress needs to understand, debate, support, and properly resource. The political risks already are high enough. Trying to make the Iraqi side of the campaign work on the basis of air strikes and force generators and enablers on the ground that can’t go forward and can’t be where it will count most is a recipe for failure.