Back to Iraq: No really, these troops are just here to advise

June 16, 2015
An officer from the coalition forces gives advice to Kurdish Peshmerga forces during a training session by coalition forces on how to fight street battles and defend the front lines on the outskirts of Dohuk province

An officer from the coalition forces gives advice to Kurdish Peshmerga forces during a training session on how to fight street battles and defend the front lines on the outskirts of Dohuk province, Iraq, June 15, 2015. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.

But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.

In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.

Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.

After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.

It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago  include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.

It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.

This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog.  Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.

The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.

In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.

We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.

Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.

Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.

In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics

One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

DOD payroll in Iraq is dropping yet costs are rising, means there are private contractors and mercenaries…not troops

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

It seems Obama is submitting to the pressure!
In his last year as a president he commits mistakes after mistakes leaving aside his own judgement.Supporting rebels in Syria,sending weapons for storage in Baltic countries,supporting Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen (At the time when he wants to settle with Iran),almost total withdrawal from Afghanistan and supporting Sunni faction in Iraq.Surprising he keeps on trusting who are not at all to be trusted.It’s a mess.
How many places he can reach?Maynamar,New African countries,Chin’s reclamation to add!

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Since most sides in Muslim jihads would like to kill the major groups in the USA, we really do not have any long term stake in any of them winning only in them continually killing each other. Our position should be to keep out except for covert aid to the losing side (putting some oil in the fire) and some action when on group or anther attacks us.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Training is not the new word for escalation. Training has be the word for escalation for longer than my 50+ years on this rock.

Posted by chaemeleo | Report as abusive

This whole war would be over in few days if the U.S. position 20 Apache gunships in Iraq. The U.S. Has an agenda to keep this war against Isis going for the time being.

Posted by marcelloo | Report as abusive

Shock and awe.

“We have looked very closely at all possible outcomes, and we know that the operations in Iraq will take weeks not months.”

-Dick Cheney to Congress, 2003; in seeking authorization to invade.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Republicans Dicked America.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Yea, we see how well that went last time.

Posted by AlabamaMothman | Report as abusive

So a Sunni extremist religious caliphate in Raqqa and nationalistic, atheistic Communists in Hanoi have some common threads?? Not really. The considerable ethnic and religious groups constituting irreconcilable tribes and clans across the “Fertile Crescent” as well as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have some ties and similarities to Vietnam?? Not really. Throw this opinion piece in the trash and start over – think and make constructive suggestions as to how to deal with the hyper complex problem.

Posted by CincinnatusSr | Report as abusive

Round up all of the top dogs from the Bush Administration and send them over instead of “advisors”, mercs or troops. They can either talk the IS to death or not come back themselves. Either result is fine with me.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Should this be called Iraqwar 3.1 ? Bombing 4 guys in an old pickup truck using F18s and smart bombs probably cost more than a million dollars a head, and did not do much, but only 3.0.
This version seems to feature groups of US “advise and assist”s camped out with the Iraqi Army. Sudden surprise attack with a few suicide car/truck bombers to breach defenses, away go the Iraqi Army on the standard deal with IS that they escape if they leave their new US weapons in good condition and drive/run fast, and the Yanks can go down fighting or surrender to enjoy their throat cutting in town market crowds to cheers of “allahakbar”.
Seems like MS software, plenty of bugs that only get fixed when you buy the next version, which has a different plague of bugs yet to discover, and odd weirdness just to be different.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

“There is an explosion of human suffering and displacement on a level that has never been seen before,” Jolie said, warning that Syrians and Iraqis were running out of safe havens as neighboring states reached the limit of their capacity.

“It is hard to point to a single instance where, as an international community, we are decisively addressing the root causes of refugee flows,” she said.

Posted by hto_eto | Report as abusive

Thousands civilians eventually die as a result of stupid attempts
to save the borders of the countries that were created by monarchical imperialists centuries ago without taking into the account the interests
of different nations that got caught inside their territories.

Posted by hto_eto | Report as abusive

The “real” “patriots” can find the explanation of this “critical” article by looking at managing editor of Reuters handshaking with KGB mafia bosses. 0/us-russia-putin-idUSKBN0P00JG20150620

Posted by hto_eto | Report as abusive

Obama is a disgrace. I did not vote for him for a reason, and everyday that he is in office solidifies my beliefs.

Posted by TravisB | Report as abusive