TIME Military

Can the U.S. Military Train the Iraqi Army to Victory Over ISIS?

U.S. Army trainers instruct Iraqi Army recruits at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq.
John Moore—Getty Images U.S. Army trainers instruct Iraqi Army recruits at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq.

Obama decides to dispatch 450 more to speed things up

The U.S. military likes to say that when it comes to war, the enemy gets a vote. President Obama made that clear Wednesday as he continued to retool his strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. The biggest tweak to U.S. policy was his decision to boost the 3,180 U.S. trainers and advisers in Iraq by as many as 450 additional troops.

The White House has made it clear U.S. troops will be limited to advising and training Iraqi forces and will not be sent into combat against ISIS. “To improve the capabilities and effectiveness of partners on the ground, the President authorized the deployment of up to 450 additional U.S. military personnel to train, advise, and assist Iraqi Security Forces at Taqaddum military base in eastern Anbar province,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement. But some on Capitol Hill were not impressed by Obama’s reinforcements. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a senior member of the armed services committee, called them a “knee-jerk reaction” to recent poor showings by the Iraqi army, rather than a “long-term strategy.”

In many ways, this assignment is déjà vu for the U.S. military. They were ordered into Iraq in the wake of the U.S.-mandated dissolution of the Iraqi army following the 2003 invasion, and told to build a new one from scratch. After all U.S. forces left in 2011, the Iraqi army basically fell apart because of the cronyism and corruption that took place under Nouri al-Malaki, Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to 2014. Over the past several months they’ve begun anew, training more than 9,000 Iraqi troops, with 3,000 more in the pipeline.

Those sectarian splits caused by Malaki’s government sapped the Iraqi forces “will to fight” to save Ramadi from being overrun by ISIS last month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said. While training can give troops the skills needed to prevail on the battlefield, training can’t teach will. Nonetheless, U.S. troops who trained Iraqi forces the first time around say Iraqi forces, given decent leadership, are good fighters. They’ve shared their experiences with Army interviewers. The resulting oral histories offer guidance to those U.S. trainers in, or soon headed for, Iraq.

In the initial rebuilding of the Iraqi army, many units suffered from a Saddam Hussein hangover, where the traditional top-down and centralized command structure stifled innovation and initiative. While the passage of time has eased that problem, Iraqi forces remain hampered by their inability to support their forward forces with the intelligence and logistical support that makes for an effective fighting force. That’s less critical for their ISIS foes, whose terror tactics sow fear across wide swaths of Iraq with only hit-and-run attacks.

U.S. officers who trained Iraqi troops the first time around learned they had to adjust their expectations. “As Americans, we tend to look at things through American goggles, but when you’re over there you have to take off those American goggles and put on the Iraqi goggles,” Army Major Dave Karsen explained following his 2006 training tour. “Once you do that it was like, `Oh, you guys are doing fine by Iraqi standards.’ Put those American goggles back on and it’s like, `You guys are 50 years in the weeds. You guys are operating at a 1918 U.S. capability compared to now.’ It’s just a totally different mindset.”

The key lesson for U.S. trainers was that Iraqi troops are trainable. “When an IED event happened, their first reaction early on was what is referred to as the ‘Iraq death blossom,’ where everybody starts shooting in every direction,” Major Matt Schreiber said of his training stint. “That poses a lot of problems for a number of reasons.” But the Iraqis shaped up with training: “If an IED blew up or detonated, despite the damage and the casualties it caused, we were confident that our Iraq army soldiers would respond they way that they were trained.”

“My personal experience with the Iraqis under fire is that they are very brave and they’re not afraid to fight,” Major William Taylor said. “You tend to find that they’re willing to take risks and do things that American soldiers would never do.” He recalled Iraqi soldiers who found an improvised explosive device and watching one of them “poking the IED with a stick.” Such bravery—or foolhardiness—could be wasted without good leadership. But, he added, “when they had good leaders, they would fight very hard.”

Iraqi leadership often left something to be desired. One brigade commander “would conduct an operation if he could get the local media or the national media to come down and videotape him,” Major Mark Fisher said. But he canceled two operations “at the last minute … because the media told him that they could not make it out today, which is a poor reason for canceling an operation.”

TIME Military

U.S. Will Send Additional Troops to Iraq for Iraqi Army Training

Iraqi soldiers train 82nd Airborne Camp Taji Iraq
US Army—Reuters Iraqi soldiers train with members of the U.S. Army 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, at Camp Taji, Iraq, in this U.S. Army photo released June 2, 2015.

The government plans to send up to 450 more troops

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of up to 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq on Wednesday to advise and assist local forces in an effort to reverse the recent gains of the Islamic State.

Under the plan, the United States will open a fifth training site in Iraq, with the goal of integrating Iraqi Security Forces and Sunni fighters. The immediate objective is to retake the city of Ramadi, seized by the Islamic State last month.

Obama made the decision at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and based on advice from Pentagon leaders, the White House said. The U.S. troops will not be used in a combat role.

“These new advisers will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead, and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the prime minister,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. The Islamic State extremists have seized sizeable areas of both Syria and Iraq.

The plan is not a change in U.S. strategy, the administration says, but addresses a need to get Sunnis more involved in the fight, a much-cited weakness in the current mission.

Questions remain about the Shiite-led Iraqi government’s commitment to recruit fighters, especially among Sunni tribesmen, to oust the Islamic State from Ramadi and Fallujah, a nearby city the militants have held for more than a year.

Up to now, Iraqi officials have chosen to deploy most U.S.-trained Iraqi troops in defensive formations around Baghdad, the capital.

The new training site will be at al-Taqqadum, a desert air base that was a U.S. military hub during the 2003-2011 war. The additional troops will include advisers, trainers, logisticians and security personnel.

There now are nearly 3,100 U.S. troops in Iraq involved in training, advising, security and other support roles. The U.S. also is flying bombing missions as well as aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions against the Islamic State’s forces, while counting on Iraqi ground troops to retake lost territory.

At a Capitol Hill news conference on Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said sending several hundred military advisers to Iraq “is a step in the right direction.” But he repeatedly criticized Obama for not having “an overarching strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State.

Other critics, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, were dismissive of Wednesday’s decision.

“This is incremental-ism at its best or worst, depending on how you describe it,” McCain said.

The U.S. mission at al-Taqqadum will be more about advising Iraqi forces on operations against the Islamic State militants in Anbar than about providing individual troop training, a U.S. official said. It will be designed to accelerate the integration of Sunni tribes with Iraqi government forces.

The expanded effort also will include delivering U.S. equipment and arms directly to al-Taqqadum, not unilaterally but under the authority of the government in Baghdad. Thus it will not represent a change in the U.S. policy of providing arms only through the central government.

The U.S. already is training Iraqi troops at four sites — two in the vicinity of Baghdad, one at al-Asad air base in Anbar province and one near Irbil in northern Iraq. There is another training center for special operations forces near Baghdad.

The new site amounts to a modest tweak to the existing U.S. approach in Iraq, and illustrates Obama’s reluctance to escalate the fight and reintroduce U.S. soldiers into combat that he had vowed to bring to an end.

“How much of a combat role are we allowing U.S. troops to face on a day-to-day basis?” said Shawn Brimley, who worked at the White House and Pentagon during Obama’s first term and is now executive vice president for the Center for a New American Security. “That’s the debate inside the administration.”

It may be time for Washington to reassess its reliance on working through the Iraqi central government and instead work with individual ethnic groups, he said.

Other analysts stressed that the challenge is greater than simply recruiting and training Iraqi troops.

“U.S. support can help the Iraqi government, but no amount of support can make them win,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official. “Winning requires the Iraqi government itself to motivate its soldiers and reassure those whom those soldiers seek to protect.”

Baghdad and it’s Shiite-led government has been reluctant to get Sunnis more involved, said Michael Eisenstadt, an Iraq veteran and now senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They fear once they arm these people they’ll eventually, potentially, turn against the Iraqi government,” he said.

—-

Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this article.

TIME Iraq

U.S. to Send More Troops to Iraq for Expanded Training Mission

President Barack Obama pauses during his remarks at the Catholic Health Association conference in Washington June 9, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst—Reuters President Barack Obama pauses during his remarks at the Catholic Health Association conference in Washington June 9, 2015.

The move aims to combat ISIS and retake the city of Ramadi

(JERUSALEM) — An expected White House decision to send several hundred more troops to Iraq to expand training of Iraqi forces in Anbar province is not a shift in U.S. strategy but is aimed at helping Iraq retake the provincial capital, Ramadi, and eventually blunt the Islamic State’s battlefield momentum.

The decision, which could be announced as soon as Wednesday, would increase the number of U.S. training sites in Iraq from four to five and enable a larger number of Iraqis — mostly Sunni tribal volunteers, in this case — to join the fight against the Islamic militant group. It is consistent with the overall U.S. approach of building up Iraqi forces while simultaneously conducting aerial bombing of Islamic State targets.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that getting the Sunnis more deeply involved in the war is critical to ousting IS from Anbar.

It leaves open, however, the larger question of whether the Shiite-led Iraqi government will make the troop commitments necessary to oust the Islamic State from Ramadi, which the militants captured last month, and Fallujah, which they have held for more than a year. Up to now, Iraqi officials have chosen to deploy most U.S.-trained Iraqi troops in defensive formations around Baghdad, the capital.

President Barack Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq. There now are slightly fewer than 3,100 U.S. troops there in training, advising, security and other support roles. The U.S. also is flying bombing missions as well as aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions to degrade the Islamic State’s forces, while counting on Iraqi ground troops to retake lost territory.

A U.S. official said Wednesday that the extra U.S. training site will be at al-Taqqadum, a desert air base that was a U.S. military hub during the 2003-2011 war. Establishing the training camp will require between 400 and 500 U.S. troops, including trainers, logisticians and security personnel, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because a final administration decision had not been announced.

The U.S. already is training Iraqi troops at four sites — two in the vicinity of Baghdad, one at al-Asad air base in Anbar province and one near Irbil in northern Iraq.

The addition of one training site is a modest tweak to the existing U.S. approach in Iraq. It was unclear Wednesday how many more Iraqi troops could be added to the fight against IS in coming months by opening one new training base. One official said the training at al-Taqqadum is likely to being this summer.

Over the past year the U.S. has trained approximately 9,000 Iraqi troops.

The new plan is not likely to include the deployment of U.S. forces closer to the front lines to either call in airstrikes or advise smaller Iraqi units in battle, officials said. One official, however, said the adjustment may include a plan for expediting the delivery of arms and military equipment to some elements of the Iraqi military.

On Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Jerusalem that he has recommended changes to President Barack Obama but he offered no assessment of when decisions would be made and announced. He suggested the president was considering a number of questions, including what adjustments to U.S. military activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world might be needed if the U.S. does more in Iraq.

Dempsey said the Pentagon also is reviewing ways to improve the effectiveness of its air campaign, which is a central pillar of Obama’s strategy for enabling Iraqi ground forces to recapture territory held by the Islamic State.

Obama said Monday that the United States still lacks a “complete strategy” for training Iraqi forces. He also urged Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to allow more of the nation’s Sunnis to join the campaign against the violent militant group.

Dempsey said Obama recently asked his national security team to examine the train-and-equip program and determine ways to make it more effective. Critics have questioned the U.S. approach, and even Defense Secretary Ash Carter has raised doubts by saying the collapse of Iraqi forces in Ramadi last month suggested the Iraqis lack a “will to fight.”

The viability of the U.S. strategy is hotly debated in Washington, with some calling for U.S. ground combat troops or at least the embedding of U.S. air controllers with Iraqi ground forces to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of U.S. and coalition airstrikes. Dempsey was not specifically asked about that but gave no indication that Obama has dropped his resistance to putting U.S. troops into combat in Iraq.

“What he’s asked us to do is to take a look back at what we’ve learned over the last eight months of the train-and-equip program, and make recommendations to him on whether there are capabilities that we may want to provide to the Iraqis to actually make them more capable … whether there are other locations where we might establish training sites,” and look for ways to develop Iraqi military leaders, he said.

Dempsey said there will be no radical change to the U.S. approach in Iraq. Rather, it is a recognition that the effort has either been too slow or has allowed setbacks where “certain units have not stood and fought.” He did not mention the Ramadi rout specifically, but Dempsey previously has said the Iraqis drove out of the city on their own.

“Are there ways to give them more confidence?” This, he said, is among the questions Obama wanted Dempsey and others to answer.

TIME Military

Fight Against ISIS Militants Lags Because They’re Nimble … and the U.S. Isn’t

“We have met the enemy, and it is us,” Obama seems to say

President Obama rattled off a list of what has gone wrong in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria during a wrap-up press conference Monday following the G-7 summit in Germany. Although he didn’t come out and say it, he made clear that while ISIS militants are “nimble and they’re aggressive and they’re opportunistic,” those fighting them — led by his Administration — are not.

Reading between the lines, he also suggested that responsibility for the poor showing thus far can be blamed on the Pentagon, Iraq and Turkey — but not him or his White House staff. It was a deft example of blame shifting that also has the consequence of relegating the presidency to the status of an also-ran.

“We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis,” Obama said, in words that quickly ricocheted around the world. The comment unfortunately echoed one from last summer that sent aides and Pentagon officials wincing: “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he had said in August.

Obama’s remarks generated predictable ire from Republicans. “I fear his incomplete strategy has only emboldened ISIS and put our national security at greater risk,” said Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

More critically, it also sparked concern among retired military officers, increasingly echoing what some of their active-duty counterparts are saying privately. “Did anyone tell him that it’s his job to develop a strategy?” wonders Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine.

The U.S. has been debating its anti-ISIS strategy longer than Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War that drove his forces out, says David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who planned that 38-day air campaign. “In about the same period of time, Saddam had invaded Kuwait with half-a-million forces, and the U.S. had devised a strategy, deployed the required forces to execute it, and eliminated the Iraqi military as an effective force, removing them from Kuwait,” Deptula says. Noting Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent complaint that Iraqi forces did not have the “will to fight” for the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, Deptula adds that “it does not appear that our Commander in Chief does, either.”

Read More: Obama Says ‘No Complete Strategy’ for Training Iraqis to Fight ISIS

Obama spoke of ISIS’s resilience following thousands of air strikes led by the U.S. (Monday’s listed here), where ISIS is defeated in one place only to surface in another. “We have made significant progress in pushing back [ISIS] from areas in which they had occupied or disrupted local populations,” Obama said. “But we’ve also seen areas, like in Ramadi, where they’re displaced in one place and then they come back in in another. And they’re nimble and they’re aggressive and they’re opportunistic.”

Obama went on to contrast those characteristics with the sclerotic response of those battling ISIS. It was those particulars that proved jarring, a full year (as of Thursday) after ISIS troops drove Iraqi forces out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and 10 months after it began beheading American hostages:

One of the areas where we’re going to have to improve is the speed at which we’re training Iraqi forces … We’re reviewing a range of plans for how we might do that, essentially accelerating the number of Iraqi forces that are properly trained and equipped and have a focused strategy and good leadership. And when a finalized plan is presented to me by the Pentagon, then I will share it with the American people.

Bottom line: the Pentagon is the bottleneck.

That is not the way to win friends in uniform. True, the Pentagon has no desire to get involved in another ground war in the region. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq killed 6,849 Americans, will cost at least $3 trillion, and have achieved few of the goals set by their U.S. architects in exchange for that blood and treasure. In that way, though, the U.S. military is no different from Obama, who was elected promising to extricate the U.S. from those conflicts. Their co-dependency has created a tepid war plan, half-heartedly carried out.

We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well about how recruitment [of Iraqi troops] takes place; how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out … One of the things that we’re still seeing is, in Iraq, places where we’ve got more training capacity than we have recruits.

Bottom line: blame the Iraqis.

Iraq remains a deeply divided society, pitting Sunnis against Shi‘ites against Kurds. With mistrust and bloodlust rampant among them, creating a unified national army to fight ISIS may not be possible in the short term. There was a realpolitik reason Washington tolerated what it often calls autocrats in polite company (known elsewhere in the world as dictators and tyrants) in Egypt, Iraq and Libya. Even when anti-American, they brutally tightened the lid on their sectarian pressure cookers. If the U.S. has decided it’s not wise to keep such potentates in power, it should hardly be surprised when the lids blow off.

The other area where we’ve got to make a lot more progress is on stemming the flow of foreign [ISIS] fighters … We are still seeing thousands of foreign fighters flowing into first Syria and then, oftentimes, ultimately into Iraq … A lot of it is preventable, if we’ve got better cooperation, better coordination, better intelligence, if we are monitoring what’s happening at the Turkish-Syria border more effectively. This is an area where we’ve been seeking deeper cooperation with Turkish authorities, who recognize it’s a problem but haven’t fully ramped up the capacity they need.

Bottom line: it’s the Turks’ fault.

Turkey has performed poorly as the one NATO ally bordering Syria and Iraq throughout the anti-ISIS campaign. But with its own restive Kurdish minority, and fearing Syrian strongman Bashar Assad more than ISIS, it has been content to remain largely on the sidelines.

So there’s a germ of truth in each of Obama’s claims. But that shouldn’t keep the Commander in Chief from looking in the mirror when it comes to assigning culpability for the timorous anti-ISIS campaign and its lackluster results.

TIME Military

Obama Says ‘No Complete Strategy’ for Training Iraqis to Fight ISIS

“We do not yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said during a G7 press conference

President Obama said Monday the U.S. does not have a “complete strategy” for training and recruiting Iraqi forces to ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS.

“We do not yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said, shifting part of the blame to leaders in Iraq who he said also needed to make commitments in regard to training before a plan could be finalized.

Speaking during a wide-ranging press conference following the G7 summit, a gathering of leaders of the world’s biggest economies, Obama said the U.S. is “reviewing a range of plans” to properly train Iraqi forces.

The President said “significant progress had been made” in pushing back against ISIS as the terror group gains more stronghold in parts of Iraq in Syria but that the U.S. needed to improve the “speed at which we’re training Iraqi forces” and efforts to recruit forces for training.

Obama’s previous statements about not having a plan to defeat ISIS have been the source of political contention for quite some time. Monday’s statements came in the wake of discussions with world leaders and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq about the world’s efforts to defeat the terror group as they’re reach in the region grows.

Obama and Abadi met for a meeting earlier on Monday where Obama said the U.S. would continue to provide assistance to the Iraqi people though no additional military commitments were made. The Prime Minister has been vocal about the need for more assistance from the U.S., saying recently Obama and other leaders are not doing enough to fight the terror group.

“As long Minister Abadi and the government stay committed to an inclusive approach,” Obama said while meeting with the Prime Minister. “I am absolutely confident that we will be successful.”

The effort to defeat ISIS was a major topic of discussion at the G7 summit, as was the ongoing sanctions regime against Russia. Obama said Monday that there was a “strong consensus” among G7 partners that they need to keep pushing Russia and Ukraine to agree to the terms laid out in the Minsk agreements, but until those obligations are met sanctions will remain in place

The people of Russia, Obama said, are “suffering” under the sanctions, but the “best way for them to stop suffering is if the Minsk agreement is fully implemented.”

Read More: Congress Takes Tiny Step Toward Authorizing Anti-ISIS War

TIME Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee Announces Presidential Run

Potential Democratic presidential candidate former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (D-RI) delivers remarks at the South Carolina Democratic Party state convention April 25, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Win McNamee—Getty Images Potential Democratic presidential candidate former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (D-RI) delivers remarks at the South Carolina Democratic Party state convention April 25, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina.

A crowded Republican presidential primary has led to more than a few candidates being called longshots for 2016. But the most unlikely candidate may actually be on the Democratic side.

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who announced Wednesday evening that he’ll run for president in a speech at a George Mason University center in Arlington, Va., has more than a few strikes against him.

First, and most importantly, he was a Republican until after he left the U.S. Senate in 2007 and an independent until 2013, in the latter half of his single term as governor. He also has low national name recognition, with a May poll from Quinnipiac University showing only one percent support among Democratic-leaning voters, compared to a sweeping 57 percent for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Even worse, Chafee doesn’t even get high marks in his own state. A 2013 poll from Brown University showed his approval rating at just 26 percent, one likely reason he did not run for re-election as governor the following year. When he announced that decision, Chafee complained about the “irrational negativity” he faced in office.

Chafee’s problems are also technical. His wife, Stephanie, recently posted on Facebook asking if any of his former staffers could remember how to log in to his official Facebook page.

Still, he is pushing ahead. “I enjoy challenges and certainly we have many facing America. Today, I am formally entering the race for the Democratic nomination for president,” Chafee said Wednesday.

He hopes to use foreign policy to get an edge on Clinton. Already, Chafee has cited his vote against the Iraq war and Clinton’s vote for it. In a pre-announcement video, he also replayed a portion of former President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which helped popularize the term “military-industrial complex.”

“I believe events occurring around the world threaten our economy and all that we hold dear,” Chafee said in the video. “I would argue that the decision to invade Iraq has destabilized the Middle East and far beyond.”

Chafee also endorsed moving the United States to the metric system.

“Let’s join the rest of the world and go metric,” he said. “It will help our economy.”

Read More: Lincoln Chafee Is Trying to Re-Run Obama’s 2008 Playbook

TIME Military

Congress Takes Tiny Step Toward Authorizing Anti-ISIS War

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
Robert Burck / U.S. Navy An EA-6B Growler takes off from the USS George W. Bush for strikes against ISIS last fall.

U.S.-led campaign has killed “more than 10,000” since last summer without lawmakers’ assent

There’s nothing that interests Congress more than self-preservation. That, for example, is what keeps the pork flowing back home. But the nation’s recent wars—messy, lengthy and inconclusive—have become radioactive. The public has turned on them, which has led lawmakers to go to great lengths to keep their fingerprints off of them.

The GOP-controlled Congress has refused to authorize the near-daily U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria that have been taking place since last August. Given that, it was jarring to hear Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken declare Wednesday that the campaign has killed “more than 10,000” ISIS militants in the name of the American people.

Republican presidential candidates, nearly all of them lawmakers, have blasted President Obama for his conduct of the air campaign against ISIS. Yet they have refused to offer specifics on how they would wage the war. More critically, they have refused even to authorize it. “I believe the President must come to Congress to begin a war and that Congress has a duty to act,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul said back in December. “Right now, this war is illegal until Congress acts pursuant to the Constitution and authorizes it.”

Six months, and thousands of bombs and missiles later, nothing has changed. That’s why it was refreshing to see the House Appropriations Committee take step toward responsibility when it passed its version of the Pentagon’s 2016 spending bill Tuesday.

In a sign of unease over Congress going AWOL in the war on ISIS, the committee voted 29-22 that “Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force against [ISIS].” The Obama Administration has cited congressional authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002 to justify its ongoing aerial attacks against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

But the push for the vote didn’t come from some Republican hawk. Instead, it came as an amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who gained notoriety as the only lawmaker to vote against using military force following the 9/11 attacks.

“More than eight months into yet another open-ended war in the Middle East, Congress has yet to live up to its constitutional responsibility to debate and vote on this war,” Lee said after the vote. “The President sent Congress an authorization [request, in February],” she added. “It’s past time that the Speaker [John Boehner] allow a debate and vote on such a critical national security issue.” Of course, a committee vote is a long way from winning approval from the full House, never mind the Senate.

Obama’s request proved a double-edged sword that kept it from winning congressional buy-in. He sought Democratic backing by ruling out “enduring offensive ground-combat operations.” But that didn’t sway war-weary Democrats. At the same time, the language disturbed Republicans, who viewed it as half-hearted.

Consequently, the nation has been waging war against ISIS for nearly a year without explicit congressional backing.

In today’s polarized America, that may be a good way to try to win the next election. But it’s a terrible way to try to win the next war.

TIME Military

How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS

IRAQ-CONFLICT
MOHAMMED SAWAF / AFP / Getty Images Iraqi Shiite fighters battle Sunni Islamic State militants north of Baghdad May 26.

The U.S. decision 12 years ago has provided the enemy with some of its best commanders and fighters

After nearly a year of air strikes led by the U.S. and ground attacks by the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is proving to be a far more cagey and cunning foe than the Pentagon ever expected. A big reason for its success is the George W. Bush Administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army shortly after the 2003 invasion—without the knowledge or consent of either the Pentagon or President.

It’s a jarring reminder of how a key decision made long ago is complicating U.S. efforts to fight ISIS and restore some semblance of stability to Iraq. Instead of giving Iraq a fresh start with a new army, it helped create a vacuum that ISIS has filled. Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general and chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, said keeping the Iraqi army intact was always part of U.S. strategy. “The plan was that the army would be the foundation of rebuilding the Iraqi military,” he says. “Many of the Sunnis who were chased out ended up on the other side and are probably ISIS fighters and leaders now.” One expert estimates that more than 25 of ISIS’s top 40 leaders once served in the Iraqi military.

General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, says the U.S. could have weeded Saddam Hussein’s loyalists from the Iraqi army while keeping its structure, and the bulk of its forces, in place. “We could have done a lot better job of sorting through that and keeping the Iraqi army together,” he told TIME on Thursday. “We struggled for years to try to put it back together again.”

The decision to dissolve the Iraqi army robbed Baghdad’s post-invasion military of some of its best commanders and troops. Combined with sectarian strains that persist 12 years later, it also drove many of the suddenly out-of-work Sunni warriors into alliances with a Sunni insurgency that would eventually mutate into ISIS. Many former Iraqi military officers and troops, trained under Saddam, have spent the last 12 years in Anbar Province battling both U.S. troops and Baghdad’s Shi’ite-dominated security forces, Pentagon officials say.

“Not reorganizing the army and police immediately were huge strategic mistakes,” said Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff and architect of the “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007. “We began to slowly put together a security force, but it took far too much time and that gave the insurgency an ability to start to rise.”

The U.S.-ordered dissolution of the Iraqi army was a major error. But it was compounded by former Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki’s wholesale firing of Sunni commanders in favor of more compliant, if less competent, Shi’ites during his 2006-2014 tenure. That turned what was supposed to have been a national army into little more than a sectarian militia that took orders from the Prime Minister’s inner circle. “Malaki went into that army and pulled out all of its distinguished leaders, whose guys were devoted to them, and put in these cronies and hacks,” Keane said. “And those guys pocketed the money that was supposed to be used for training.”

So how did the Iraqi army come to dissolve? The Bush Administration tapped Paul Bremer to head the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority on May 11, 2003. Twelve days later, he issued an order wiping away the Iraqi military, with a pledge to build a new one from scratch, untainted by any ties to Saddam’s regime. The army’s end quickly led to civil unrest, a growing insurgency and a U.S. occupation that would last eight years and cost the lives of 4,491 American troops.

Things would have been different if the Iraqi army had been scrubbed of Hussein’s loyalists, but otherwise permitted to exist, military officers believe. “I think it would have caused us to spend less time in Iraq—I think we would have been to leave a lot sooner than we were,” said Odierno, who commanded forces in Iraq during three tours between 2003 and 2010. “I think it would have given a better chance for Iraqis to come together.”

Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army has been shrouded in mystery. James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, conducted one of the most detailed autopsies into the decision. “President Bush had agreed with military planners that the Army was essential for the internal and external security of the country,” Pfiffner wrote in the professional journal Intelligence and National Security in 2010. “When asked in 2006 by his biographer…about the decision, Bush replied ‘Well, the policy was to keep the army intact. Didn’t happen’.” Pfiffner suggests the decision made by Bremer actually came from Vice President Dick Cheney. (“It may have been a mistake,” Cheney said in 2011 without confirming it was his decision.)

Over the past year, ISIS has seized hundreds of U.S.-built Iraqi military vehicles given to Baghdad by the U.S. government. But history shows that the U.S., beyond providing ISIS with war machines, also made a fateful decision that gave ISIS some of its best commanders and fighters.

TIME Military

Pentagon Rhetoric About Ramadi’s Fall Risks U.S. Credibility

IRAQ-CONFLICT-ANBAR
Sabah Arar—AFP/Getty Images Ramadi residents flee their city after ISIS fighters took control of it on Saturday.

Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet if you're not winning

When generals start playing with syntax, hold on to your wallets. “The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) was not driven out of Ramadi,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. “They drove out of Ramadi.”

That grammatical shift from the passive to the active voice—Dempsey boasts a master’s degree in literature from Duke, after all—highlights just how badly Iraq’s U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now going.

“We saw this movie—it was called Vietnam,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who began his career in that country in 1967, advising South Vietnamese marines. “They are losing credibility. We went through this in Vietnam where we touted pacification and winning all these battles while strategically losing the war.”

The growing disconnect between what’s happening on the ground, and what U.S. military leaders say is happening on the ground, has consequences. “For the last 13 years, even though we have not done well in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the American people have stayed with the military,” Bing West, a one-time Marine infantryman and former assistant defense secretary, says. “But if the American people now see a gap between the reality and what the military is telling them, then you end up with the corrosiveness that we saw in Vietnam.”

Dempsey’s verbal twist—implying that ISIS didn’t force some of Iraq’s best troops out of the city, but, thanks in part to American training, they left in a crafty and bold military move—comes on the heels of a Friday briefing at the Pentagon that Saturday revealed to be close to fiction.

“We firmly believe [ISIS] is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria,” Marine Brigadier General Thomas Weidley told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from the region. “The Iraqis, with coalition support, are making sound progress,” Weidley, chief of staff of Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS operation, added. “The coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq as they conduct operations in Ramadi.”

The next day, after a series of bombings, ISIS fighters took over Ramadi after Iraqi troops fled, collecting a half-dozen U.S.-provided tanks and 100 vehicles abandoned by the Iraqis in their rush to drive out of the capital of Anbar province. ISIS forces killed an estimated 500 Iraqi troops and civilians, while 25,000 residents fled the city. In addition to Ramadi, they now occupy the major Iraqi cities of Mosul and Fallujah.

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Pentagon officials argue that the long-term U.S. strategy—stepped-up (re)training of Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. and allied air power—ultimately will prevail. They note that they have said from the start that the anti-ISIS campaign could take three years. The U.S. joined the fight last August, and has been flying nearly-daily air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. There’s a push “for a narrative about success, and that the strategy is fine, that influences different echelons of our government and military to not go outside that narrative,” says Derek Harvey, a one-time Army intelligence officer now at the University of South Florida. “That disconnect risks undermining their credibility.” The retired colonel, who worked for Army general David Petraeus, believes the U.S. focus on vehicles destroyed “measures progress by elements that are irrelevant and meaningless.” The U.S.-led effort is additionally handicapped because it has been done half-heartedly. “A bad strategy that is not properly resourced has a zero chance of success,” he says.

The Pentagon has deployed about 3,000 U.S. troops to train Iraqi forces, although President Obama has restricted their efforts to areas well behind the front lines. That means they can’t call in air strikes and gather front-line intelligence that could give Iraqi forces a critical advantage. Zinni contends a relatively small U.S. combat force on the ground inside Iraq could destroy ISIS, but Obama’s aversion to casualties has ruled that out. “Everybody with any kind of military experience in the Pentagon knows damn right well that this strategy isn’t going to work because you’re counting on breaking his will and there’s no sign of that happening,” he adds. “This strategy has got to bring up Vietnam, where they were saying, `Give us time, we’ll kill enough of them and hit a tipping point.’ The problem is they have not found the tipping point.”

The American people, following more than a decade of war, may not be in the mood for another two years of fighting with an unreliable ally. The Pentagon is doing what it can despite the restrictions the White House has imposed. But the over-selling of military progress in battling ISIS is the first step in a treacherous march toward disillusionment that the U.S. military has now begun.

“If the battle is going against you—and it is—do not put yourself in the position where the credibility of the U.S. military is undermined,” West says of Dempsey’s drive-time comment. “If it doesn’t look good, say nothing.”

TIME Terrorism

These Are the Cities Most Likely to Be Hit by a Terrorist Attack

Twelve of the world's capital cities are considered at "extreme risk" of an attack

A report by global-risk-analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft has identified the cities most likely to be hit by a terrorist attack.

Maplecroft analyzed 1,300 of the world’s important urban centers and commercial hubs and ranked them based on the intensity and frequency of attacks in the year following February 2014. The report also combined the number and severity of attacks in the previous five years.

Baghdad is considered the most at-risk city in the world, with 1,141 people dying in 380 attacks. In all, seven of the most at-risk cities are all in Iraq, including Mosul ranked at No. 2 and Ramadi at No. 3.

According to the index, 64 cities around the world are at “extreme risk” of an attack, most of these are in the Middle East (27) including cities in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan or Asia.

Of those 64 at extreme risk of a terrorist attack, 12 are capital cities including Egypt’s Cairo, Abuja in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya and Pakistan’s Islamabad.

There are 14 cities in Africa that have seen an increased risk of violence, which has been attributed to militant extremist groups Boko Haram and al-Shabab as well as political instability.

Three cities at extreme risk of attacks are in Europe, with Ukraine’s Luhansk ranked at 46, Donetsk at 56, and Grozny in Russia at 54.

The British city most at risk of an attack is Belfast (91), compared with Manchester (398) and London, which is ranked at 400.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead in January, the city was considered “high risk” and its ranking soared from 201 before the attacks to 97.

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