Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his decision to airlift food and water to members of the Yezidi minority stranded in the Sinjar mountains of Iraq, and to use air-to-ground munitions against formations of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) moving against Kurdish units near Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. So far, Obama’s strategy has been well calibrated and at least partly successful; the Yezidis’ plight appears less dire than a few days ago, and ISIS’ forays into Kurdistan have been stymied for the moment, perhaps even partly reversed in some places. 

Obama’s restraint in providing major assistance to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad has likewise been prudent, since, by coming to the aid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki too soon, the United States would squander the leverage it could use to persuade the Iraqi government to find a different and better prime minister. It is, after all, Maliki who governed so badly that major Sunni political and tribal leaders acquiesced to ISIS’ advances rather than work with a man they increasingly saw as a dictator to stop the brutal group’s march. The Iraqi army will likely not be willing to do its part to restore security in Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland under Maliki, so it would be a fool’s errand for the United States to attempt too much while he still leads the country.

In other words, Obama’s critics should give him some space and some time. Over the years, most everyone in the United States, including the president, most of his critics, and certainly most of us in the think tank community, have had ample opportunity to be both right and wrong about Iraq and Syria. And, whatever those past debates, ISIS’ takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria constitutes a serious threat to U.S. national security that must be addressed on its own terms -- as the Obama administration seems to have realized.

Although the president has been correct to use only limited airpower so far (even while warning that U.S. involvement in Iraq could last for months), he needs to avoid any sense of complacency that he can limit the United States’ role to modest actions taken several thousand feet up in the air. For now, the United States’ only realistic goal in Iraq is to prevent further ISIS advances. But ultimately, the collective aim of the United States, Iraq, and others in the region should be to fully push back the radical and brutal group, which is committed to the creation of a caliphate throughout much of the broader Middle East and even parts of Europe, and is willing to employ brutal tactics to achieve its aims. This group simply cannot be allowed to remain in power in large sections of Iraq and Syria indefinitely.

Yet, preventing ISIS from taking further territory in the Shia and Kurdish zones will be far easier than liberating the land it already controls. The situation is particularly straightforward in Kurdistan. There, the politically unified and militarily cohesive peshmerga forces have no sympathy for ISIS and can easily identify its fighters as they cross into the autonomous region. The main problem is that ISIS is better armed and, at the moment, more aggressive than the Kurdish forces. That is why it was able to make inroads into the areas near Erbil, which has a substantial population and a U.S. consulate. But to push deeper into the territory, ISIS will have to use roads that U.S. forces and the Kurds can easily monitor and, if the United States is willing to help provide the needed firepower, can also protect. Further, when ISIS shells peshmerga’s tactical positions with artillery, it provides signatures that U.S. forces can track before returning fire. As the United States continues its air campaign, it probably does need to help arm the Kurdish forces -- and must do so promptly, regardless of what is happening in Baghdad. This might be the one major area in which Obama’s current restraint is ill-advised. But otherwise, the overall dynamics in Kurdistan are promising.

Preventing ISIS from making further attacks on the Yezidis may prove slightly harder. Here, it is possible that the United States may need to consider a tactical deployment of several hundred forces as a temporary blocking force to prevent a small-scale genocide in the weeks ahead. But, for now, it does not appear that any such move is required because ISIS does not seem to be moving against the destitute populations in a committed way. Even if it did become necessary, such a deployment could be limited in scale and scope.

But then we come back to the difficult questions. After containing ISIS, the United States will need to consider what comes next -- how to help form a suitable government in Baghdad and assist it in expelling ISIS from cities such as Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi, and Tikrit, where its legions have by now largely infiltrated civilian populations. And here, Obama needs to be fair to his critics and avoid suggesting that those in favor of doing more want to return to the Iraq mission of 2003–2011. In fact, there are many options in between an all-out use of U.S. combat forces and the limited measures employed in recent days.

The history of using limited airpower in wars like this one shows that a few pinpricks from the sky rarely make a difference on the ground. The United States tried that in Kosovo with several dozen aircraft in 1999, but only achieved success after increasing its airpower several fold and after it began to hint at a ground invasion two months later. U.S. air strikes did help a great deal in Afghanistan in 2001, but only because there was an effective Northern Alliance military ally on the ground that made it possible to isolate and target the enemy from the air, with the aid of U.S. special forces and CIA teams embedded with them. Further, the United States had lots of aircraft in Iraq from 2003 through 2006, manned and unmanned, yet was losing the war until the combination of the Sunni awakening and the surge turned the tide. It is important to recognize that U.S. airpower is not up to the full job here, unless the Iraqi army can get its act together in a big way and take the lead on the ground.

Nothing about the big breakthroughs in drone technology over the last decade changes those basic facts. It remains very hard to find and destroy an enemy from the air without good intelligence, gained largely on the ground, especially when one’s allies are vulnerable to retribution by the enemy. U.S. troops need not attempt to solve these issues on their own, as they did in the last round of the war. But the United States does need to help restore the Iraqi military’s ability to do so.

One option is to deploy a significant number of special operations teams, well above the very modest number that may be in in the theater now as part of the detachments of several hundred U.S. planners sent to Iraq over the last month. But how many? If there are 10,000 dedicated ISIS fighters that U.S. and Iraqi units must ultimately remove from the battlefield, experience in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that the U.S. and Iraqi units will need to conduct perhaps several thousand raids informed by good intelligence. Ideally, the United States would strike hard, fast, and early in any operation so that the enemy does not have time to adjust. To do that, it would need up to several dozen in-country commando teams (or those based in neighboring countries in some cases), making for a grand total of 1,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops. In all likelihood, such a mission would last perhaps several months at peak intensity. However, the United States need not take the lead on most such operations and need not continue them indefinitely.

The other option involves a type of military unit, developed in recent years in Afghanistan, called a Security Force Assistance Team. This is a small team of 10­–20 U.S. soldiers who are embedded at the small-unit level within indigenous forces. Since elements of the Iraqi army have, in some cases, already dissolved, such advisory teams -- which live with and deploy into the field with their counterparts -- could be crucial for rebuilding good tactics, unit cohesion, confidence in the leadership, and tenacity, as well as designating targets for air strikes. Assuming that such teams might be deployed with most of Iraq’s army battalions, and assuming roughly ten battalions per division, there could be a need for up to 100 such U.S. teams. Again, these would need to stay in Iraq for a period of several months to perhaps one or two years. A recent U.S. intelligence report found that some such Iraqi units may have been infiltrated by extremists of one ilk or another, so it might not be possible to work with all Iraqi formations at first, but only those that are somewhat more dependable. Add in some support and backup and quick-response units, and the numbers will again reach into the low thousands. 

None of this will be appealing to the U.S. public, the Congress, or Obama. But the alternative may be to see a brutal al Qaeda-like ISIS that tries to build a caliphate over much of the Middle East and beyond, continues to recruit and warp the minds of thousands of potential fighters holding Western passports, and remains entrenched in much of Iraq (and Syria) for an indefinite period. In terms of U.S. security interests, that prospect is intolerable.

For a president who has been intent on ending two wars and getting American GIs home from both Iraq and Afghanistan, a military return to Iraq would be a bitter pill to swallow. But the strategies sketched out here would not be fundamentally incompatible with Obama’s assertion that he has, in fact, ended the main U.S. combat roles in both countries, since residual forces will be less than a tenth of their peak sizes in either location. Most of all, it is what may be needed to keep the United States safe -- which is, of course, the president’s main responsibility.

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  • MICHAEL O’HANLON is a Senior Fellow at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and Director of Research for the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
  • More By Michael O’Hanlon