President Obama wants you to know that he has no intention of going to war in Iraq, even as U.S. military personnel arrived in Iraq this week to begin their mission of advising the Iraqi military on how to be more effective in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The president has promised not to send "combat troops" to Iraq, but it's hard to see how the U.S. military personnel he is sending there can avoid combat, given that they are being dropped into the middle of a civil war.
First off, just because the U.S. forces call themselves advisers doesn't mean that they will be out of harm's way. The current plan is to station U.S. troops at joint operating centers that are supposed to be far from the front lines. But the front lines in the war are fluid, and could move into areas where U.S. troops are going to be based.
Furthermore, if U.S. personnel are to make an accurate assessment of the state of the Iraqi military, it will be tempting to send at least some of them to combat zones to get an up-close look at the fighting. And if ISIS fighters shoot at U.S. advisers, they will be compelled to take on a combat role whether they want to or not. This in turn may lead to an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq to protect those who are already there. The distinction between advisers and combat troops may quickly disappear.
And it's not just ISIS that U.S. forces will have to worry about. Associates of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militias fought the U.S. military when it was stationed in Iraq, have threatened to attack any U.S. personnel who return to the country. And if that's not bad enough, three current and former CIA officials told Newsweek that Iraqi government military personnel are likely to spy on U.S. advisers and share that information with their allies in Iran.
The greatest danger of sending U.S. advisers to Iraq is that they are likely to be just the first wave of a larger intervention. One of their main missions will be to identify bombing targets, thereby increasing the likelihood of U.S. air strikes. And once they assess the needs of the Iraqi military, more U.S. arms transfers and additional trainers are likely to follow closely behind.
All of this activity will be carried out against the backdrop of accelerating sectarian violence. Reports from Baghdad indicate that Shiite militias have begun to kidnap and kill Sunni residents who have no connection to ISIS, just because they are Sunni. Meanwhile, in the north, armed Sunni groups have formed a tactical alliance with ISIS in hopes of overthrowing the al-Maliki regime. The Obama administration has called for a more inclusive government in Baghdad, but al-Maliki is still in power, and U.S. military involvement has already begun. Washington is now on al-Maliki's side whether it wants to be perceived that way or not.
Events are moving rapidly in Iraq. Before the Obama administration gets involved any further, Congress and the public should be consulted. Nearly three-quarters of Americans think the last Iraq war was a mistake. Let's not repeat it by sliding into a new military intervention in Iraq under the guise of sending advisers.