Sometimes the words of our leaders can have a telling impact on strategic outcomes—interpretations limit strategic and operational adaptability and effectiveness. That may prove to be the case with words from the US president’s most recent speech outlining a four-point coalition strategy to defeat ISIL (otherwise known at ISIS or Islamic State). Specifically, the words, ‘combat mission’ may constrain coalition leaders at all levels from taking certain actions that could mean the difference between the success and failure of the campaign. The first argument over those words is likely to be about whether or not coalition advisers will be allowed to accompany their indigenous units on combat missions.
In previous speeches about assisting Syrian rebels, the president has emphasised that he wouldn’t put ‘boots on the ground’. Retired General Anthony Zinni has openly criticised the president for that and other statements. Leaders of other coalition countries have used similar language. Though the president avoided the phrase ‘boots on the ground’ in his most recent speech, he stated that the troops deploying to Iraq will ‘not have a combat mission’. Unfortunately, leaders of other coalition countries are also likely to use the same language in order to bolster domestic support—critical, of course, to the success of any campaign.
So what’s a combat mission for soldiers on the ground? Does that restriction mean US and other partner countries’ military advisers will not be able physically to accompany indigenous units (Iraqi or Peshmerga) on offensive operations against ISIL forces? Or will those advisers be allowed to accompany their indigenous units, but only at certain higher-headquarters echelons? The specifics of the implied restriction may sound like semantics to some, but it could be the one thing that determines whether those indigenous units are able to defeat ISIL or are instead themselves defeated again. I submit that the probability of success in this campaign will increase if the coalition advisors are able to accompany their indigenous counterparts. The greater the chances of success, the lower the echelon with which the advisers may go into battle. Those who have ever attempted to advise foreign troops in combat know this from experience.
Morale is the critical vulnerability of the Iraqi forces. By ‘morale’ I don’t mean their overall happiness; I mean their overall and individual will to stand and fight. Iraqi units demonstrated that vulnerability earlier this year when much smaller elements of ISIL fighters routed superior elements of the Iraqi Army, which then disintegrated and abandoned en masse millions of dollars worth of military hardware. Even the proud Peshmerga may be afflicted with low morale given recent defeats. So why is anyone confident that these reconstituted or newly constructed units will have the necessary morale to mount a successful attack against the same ISIL forces that have now had months to prepare? Will airstrikes be enough against an enemy that may be dug in, can disperse readily into the population, or is willing to use suicide bombers? Even if morale has been rebuilt, it must still be fragile and vulnerable.
Allowing advisers to accompany their counterpart units at the lowest levels will strengthen that vulnerability in three ways: honour, communication, and medical evacuation. Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers are far more likely to fight and less likely to flee if they see advisers sharing the danger of the battle plans those advisers helped construct. Iraqis may also be less likely to commit acts of vengeance on coerced Sunni civilians in the presence of foreign advisers who could threaten the loss of coalition assets if such violations occur. Moreover, coalition advisers—especially the Special Forces—will carry the most reliable communications equipment to direct airstrikes and provide alternate communications when Iraqi communications fail. That will prevent panic and allow for coordination of fire and manoeuvre. Finally, Iraqi forces know that coalition advisers never leave a man behind and always operate with reliable medical evacuation. Both Peshmerga and regular Iraqi army soldiers have witnessed the life-saving abilities of Special Forces medics. A soldier’s will to fight is increased when he knows he has a good chance of coming back alive.
So, when advisers accompany their indigenous units, does it qualify as a combat mission? Certainly the advisers—who are exposed to enemy fire—will think so. Domestic opponents of the leaders of coalition countries will probably also think so and accuse the leaders of breaking their ‘no combat mission’ promise. That’s the problem with the words as chosen. Yet, the US President also elaborated on the spirit behind those words when he said, ‘we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq’. Clearly what he’s trying to avoid is having large formations of foreign land forces operating in Iraq as cohesive combat elements doing for Iraq what it must do for itself. Allowing advisers to accompany their indigenous partners might technically go against the letter of what the president and other leaders are saying, but it would be consistent with the spirit, and could mean the difference between success and failure.
Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. The views expressed in this post are his own. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Army.