By Joseph Padgett:
The climatic ending of the fight against ISIS in Iraq is drawing ever closer as more soldiers have been tapped on the shoulder and told to deploy to the hot zone. Now totaling over 5,000 troops on the ground it is the largest presence we have had since the U.S. left the country officially in 2011. Still, as the U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces take the last major city held by ISIS in Iraq we must ask, “what happens after Mosul?”
When we left Iraq the first time, we left a poorly trained counterpart army that we thought would be sufficient to defend themselves without having a natural enemy. The only fighting we foresaw was the possible Iraqi and Kurdish rivalries we dealt with throughout the deployment, but even those had been short lived and fizzled out in a matter of days or weeks. We could have never seen a force such as ISIS sweeping through the towns that we once held, and probably using the same facilities we once used outside of Jalawla, Iraq as their compound as well.
Now that we are standing at the doorstep of Mosul, in what will hopefully be the final standoff against ISIS, we must look back to the lessons learned of our original departure from Iraq. There will be some major questions to answer regarding what we will need to do after Mosul.
Do we chase ISIS after we take Mosul?
If we did decide to give chase to the remnants of ISIS, it would be a fight through the vast northern sands and hills of Iraq. If we retake Mosul and leave it at that, we will more than likely face more loss of American personnel due to counterattacks in the city. It will also lead to more civilian casualties for the same reason. However, if we continue the chase, we can push them back to the border providing a buffer for us to help to provide the time for us to train the Iraqi Army in creating a proper offensive strategy. That will be a major key in securing total victory in the conflict. Minimizing both military and civilian casualties should be a top priority as we attempt to repel the insurgency.
Do we leave or stay in Iraq after Mosul? If we stay, for how long?
If we stay too long, we will have to start using deployment rotations once again. That could prove problematic as units are shifting and changing to fit the President’s goal to trim the Armed Forces. With a dwindling force size, it will mean more deployments for more people. Also, having a steady influx of soldiers into the region will keep the Department of Defense budget on a steady incline, something that many people are still adamantly opposed to. However, if we leave too soon we risk leaving an ill-prepared military in place that will cause a weak spot for ISIS, or another extremist group, to regain lands within Iraq. If they regain a foothold after we leave we would be forced to stare down our mistake, or do a 180 degree turn and return for a fourth time, including Desert Storm.
How do we ensure we can safely exit?
This is a more difficult question since it is the same reason the pull out of Iraq originally took so long. We were failing to meet the goals that we put in place to enable our departure. A mixture of uneasiness and turmoil continued to prompt the need for a U.S. presence all the way through the last days of Operation: New Dawn. The training we provided was basic security training such as manning check points and searching vehicles. Though we did train some in combat operations, they were unreliable and often fought among each other. Especially a tandem force such as that in eastern Iraq where the tensions between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga, who fight side-by-side, continue to remain at high levels.
We would also have to be able to train them as a more capable fighting force, and not as a just a defense force. That, I think, was a mistake that we made while leaving. We need to ensure they are able to stand alone as their own force, and be able to provide as little presence as possible inside the country in order to counter the feeling of reliance on our military if we stay in large numbers. That was partially the reason for the prolonged presence previously under the agreements that had been set forth by President Bush and Obama during their terms. That was until their talks about maintaining a presence fell apart and the official withdrawal of all troops that came in 2011.
While I think that it is imperative that we assist in the removal of ISIS from Iraq, we must be both forward thinking and backwards looking. We must continue to actively plan for all possible contingencies while taking lessons from the last time we left Iraq into consideration in order to prevent the cycle of violence that has overwhelmed the Middle East from returning to Iraq.
We must however leave an Iraqi and Kurdish force that is able to fight on their own and protect themselves without the assistance from the United States. If we continue to send troops back into Iraq to reinforce the native armies, then our overall mission could be considered a failure as we are unable to show that we can leave a competent military in the stead of what we dismantled in 2003. We must continue to plan for the possible resurgence of Islamic Militants, whether ISIS or another group that rises from the ashes of turmoil, and be confident that the native military on the ground will be able to engage and destroy the enemy and only commit our air assets in case of emergencies.
With the growing hostilities in Syria, and the tensions growing between the U.S. and Russia, it is hard to say what exactly needs to happen next. One thing is for sure, we cannot continue to commit more ground troops leading to more mission creep in a country that we previously left in a last ditch attempt to kick start their self-reliance. This could prove to be detrimental to the future capabilities of our military forces. Doing so will also continue to dig deep into the pockets of the taxpayers that wish to see an end to the incessant wartime culture that we have all grown so accustomed to in the last two decades.
Joseph Padgett is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Army combat medic.
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