President Barack Obama announced Thursday that 300 American troops — acting as “military advisers” — will deploy in the coming days, and that while “targeted and precise military action” is on the table, that won’t include U.S. forces fighting on the battlefield.
“Ultimately,” Obama said, “this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis.”
The 300 U.S. troops dispatched will offer training and intelligence support to the Iraqi military, which has failed to crush the extremists advancing toward Baghdad.
But the U.S. must still articulate what can be achieved by sending troops to Iraq again — otherwise face more criticism from a war-weary American public, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News military analyst.
Otherwise, “this is a domestic political charade with some international implications,” McCaffrey said.
Who are the troops going and what will they be doing?
The troops are elite members drawn from U.S. Special Operations forces. They will be experts on operations, intelligence and aviation, and will work directly with the Iraqi security forces leadership.
Green Berets will also be embedded with Iraqi brigades around the country, although those locations haven’t been identified.
The U.S. advisers will assess the security situation on the ground, including the strength of the Iraqi military and of the Sunni insurgents, known as ISIS. They will be continually feeding that intelligence to U.S. Central Command and use it to determine how many more Special Forces troops to send and where to deploy them.
These troops are also the ones who could call in airstrikes with Obama’s consent. But such action isn’t imminent, officials have said.
What are the priorities for the troops?
They will have two main missions: setting up and operating two joint operations centers, and also advising the Iraqi brigades.
The two joint operations centers will be based in Baghdad and northern Iraq, north of Kirkuk. It’s unclear whether leaders with the Iraqi special forces will be physically present at the centers on a day-to-day basis.
From there, the Americans will collect and coordinate intelligence, provide command and control, and track the movements of ISIS.
Meanwhile, the small teams of Green Berets will be placed in various locations and provide tactical and strategic advice to the Iraqi military in the field. That information would include determining the location of ISIS fighters and ways to cut them off.
Will these troops have immunity from Iraqi prosecution?
Yes, they will be granted immunity, meaning they can’t be tried in Iraqi courts for actions in the country.
Such an allowance was a sticking point before the U.S. withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had wanted U.S. troops to stay, but only if the Americans were no longer given immunity — an unpopular policy among Iraqis.
The Obama administration refused, and the last of the U.S. forces left soon after.
Can the U.S. succeed in helping the Iraqi government thwart ISIS?
The eruption of new violence in Iraq has placed Obama in a tough position — one that he was unable to wipe his hands clean of at the end of 2011, McCaffrey said.
“The bottom line is we’ve had a serious problem over the last decade, and not just during this administration,” he added. “People have been debating the menu of military options instead of asking what do we want these people [in Iraq] to achieve?”
McCaffrey remains worried that even with the U.S. military might behind the Iraqis, a larger solution to the country’s divide has still not been identified.
“We could put 150 troops back into Iraq, separate the warring factions, guard the borders, but in the end,” he said, “we haven’t delineated our objectives.”