Published On: Thu, Sep 11th, 2014

U.S. to Rely on Local Forces to Fight Islamic State

U.S. to Rely on Local Forces to Fight Islamic State

American Strategy Envisions Training of Iraqi Allies, Syrian Rebels

By Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman

Peshmerga fighters stand guard at Mosul Dam in Iraq last month. Reuters

A cornerstone of the expanded U.S. military campaign against Islamic State militants will be reliance on U.S.-trained local forces to confront the group head on.

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Experts say the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State is operating like a government, with a bureaucratic hierarchy. Here’s how it is structured. Reported by WSJ’s Jason Bellini and Reem Makhoul.

But the U.S. has a poor track record of taking or keeping control in areas such as Iraq and Libya for extended periods, experiences that underscore the risks of depending on moderate rebels in Syria and state security forces in Iraq.

Relying on local forces and eschewing the use of American combat troops has become a favorite strategy of President Barack Obama as a way to reduce the risk of being dragged into a protracted foreign conflict. But some defense officials and experts say that approach also can heighten the risk of failure.

In Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere, results have been mixed at best in U.S. efforts to push local forces to the forefront of fights against extremists. U.S. military campaigns conducted with little or no local ground support—such as those in Pakistan and Yemen—have met with some success but have lasted for years. Success, officials and experts say, is especially difficult when American troops are prohibited from serving alongside local units on the front lines or without a yearslong U.S. presence to train, advise and mentor the partner forces.

American defense officials are divided over whether it is possible to train local forces in Iraq and Syria without at least a small number of American “boots on the ground,” something that Mr. Obama has vowed to avoid. Weeks of American airstrikes in Iraq have arrested the progress of Islamic State fighters, preventing them from claiming more territory. But few military experts or officials believe Hellfire missiles and guided bombs will be enough to roll back the group’s gains.

Taking back territory in Iraq, defense officials insist, will require a push by Kurdish and other Iraqi forces. In Syria, the U.S. plans to expand efforts to train moderate rebels, who in theory could challenge both Islamic State and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. officials acknowledge big risks with the strategy and that not all of the potential pitfalls have been addressed. In Syria, officials have repeatedly raised the problem of adequately vetting rebels to ensure the people trained and armed by the U.S. don’t join the ranks of Islamic State. In Iraq, the U.S. believes that many of the Shiite-dominated military forces have been penetrated by Iranian agents.

“You’re relying on lots of different forces who are in some cases highly unreliable and highly divided,” said a U.S. official. “It’s a delicate balancing act. Unless we play it really smartly, it could really go poorly. There are real risks there.”

Avoiding American boots on the ground and relying on local partnership forces was a centerpiece of the military strategy unveiled by Mr. Obama in 2011.

The U.S. tried out the approach in Libya, where U.S. and allied war planes conducted strikes in support of Libyan rebels, who ultimately succeeded in toppling the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. With no U.S. presence in Libya or training plan for Libyan militias, however, the country spiraled into chaos in the years following the war and many U.S. officials now see Libya as a failed state posing a graver threat to international security then it did before Gadhafi’s fall. Some U.S. officials, however, dispute this characterization.

In Iraq, the U.S. spent billions training and equipping the Iraqi army before the American military exited in 2011. After the U.S. departure, many top officers trained by the U.S. were driven from the force, replaced by Shiites loyal to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and military units built up by the U.S. stay fell into neglect.

As a result, Iraqi military units in Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul and elsewhere collapsed in the face of the militant advance over the past few months.

One example of working with local forces is repeatedly held up by U.S. officials as a successful example: Colombia. There, a handful of U.S. special operations forces, along with aid money from the U.S., helped train the Colombian military, allowing them to drive back an insurgency that at one time threatened the government.

While small in number, U.S. troops remained in the country for long periods and regularly went into the field with their Colombian counterparts.

U.S. airstrikes targeting al Qaeda and related groups in Pakistan also are seen as relatively successful. But U.S. efforts to train security forces there fell short when American special operation forces were asked to leave.

A still-covert Central Intelligence Agency drone campaign in Pakistan has relied on military security and support in Afghanistan, and U.S. military and intelligence officials say that gains in Pakistan could erode once the U.S. withdraws its forces from Afghanistan in 2016.

In Yemen, four years of U.S. counterterrorism and training operations have targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group U.S. intelligence officials say poses the greatest ability to attack the U.S. at home. But this hasn’t neutralized the threat posed to the country’s government.

As in Iraq, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have extensively trained national security forces. But gaps remain, fueling fears that the security situation there could deteriorate following the U.S. departure. Administration officials say if Afghan officials agree to a security deal, U.S. forces will remain in the country until 2015.

In Syria, the U.S. faces the task of training moderate rebel forces that lack unity. The U.S. also will be arming the rebels to fight Islamic State, while the rebels are motivated largely by the prospect of fighting the Assad regime. Among risks, the U.S. may find that it puts considerable effort into building support of regional allies only to find that the rebels suffer setbacks and the U.S. is tethered to them, one U.S. official said.

Some U.S. lawmakers expressed skepticism about the utility of training and arming Syrian rebels.

“We’ve tried that pretty thoroughly in both Iraq and Afghanistan and it hasn’t worked well there,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R., Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said after a classified briefing Wednesday.

At least at the outset, the U.S. will be restricted in Syria by limits on usable intelligence, which would be needed to go after key extremist leaders, another U.S. official said.

The challenges faced by the U.S. in Iraq are different, resting largely on whether the Iraqi government and military can take advantage of U.S. support.

Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official, said that under the new Iraqi government, military prospects are better because Mr. Maliki had swapped out competent generals for sectarian yes-men.

Administration officials believe that a new government will spur greater Sunni participation in the effort to counter Islamic State militants. Still, any success isn’t likely to happen quickly.

“It takes sustained effort,” said Ms. Flournoy. “This isn’t a project of weeks or months. It is a project of years.”


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