On Wednesday, the White House announced that 450 new US troops are going to Iraq. That sounds like it could be a very big deal: could this be the first step on the path to US combat "boots on the ground" in Iraq once again?
Probably not. The new personnel aren't combat troops, and aren't going to be fighting ISIS directly. Today's announcement shows that the Obama administration is devoting more resources to its current strategy in Iraq, not switching to a new one.
But it's still a big deal. Comments from White House officials reveal that this is a fairly comprehensive attempt to address the problems with the way the US has implemented its anti-ISIS strategy. And if this new effort fails, it could call the White House's entire strategy into question.
What the White House is doing
The new plan establishes a new US presence at al-Taqaddum, a base very close to ISIS holdings in Anbar province — where they'll be training and assisting Iraqi troops who are trying to retake Ramadi, the provincial capital, from ISIS. The training effort is going to focus on local Sunni tribal fighters, which make sense: Anbar is a Sunni province, and the largely Shia Iraqi government and aligned Shia militias need Sunni support to clear and hold territory inside Anbar.
But it's important to understand that the new initiative isn't, as it's been depicted, just about sending trainers to a new base. The new American soldiers will be training soldiers, but they'll also be helping coordinate the Iraqi fight against ISIS at a location very near the front lines. As this Google map shows, al-Taqaddum isn't very far from Ramadi:
"The intent of the additional site [al-Taqaddum] is to provide personnel to assist with planning, integration, logistics, and support to the Iraqi security forces as they fight to retake Ramadi," Elissa Slotkin, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said on a call with reporters.
Among other things, these new troops are supposed to make it easier to call in effective airstrikes in the nearby area. "Where we have a presence, such as at al-Asad Airbase, the turnaround time for airstrikes is pretty quick," Brett McGurk, deputy special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said in the same call. "Given the strategic location of Taqaddum, I think this will greatly improve our ability to turn around airstrikes at a pretty fast clip."
Sending US troops to al-Taqaddum base isn't the only new push the White House is making in Iraq. The White House also plans to expedite the delivery of military weapons and supplies, including anti-tank missiles, to the Iraqis. The US has also pledged to contribute $8.3 million to a UN-run fund to help restore civilian services in areas that have already been cleared of ISIS forces, in order to ensure that they don't fall back into ISIS's hands.
Why this new step matters
The White House's plan was born out the failures of its current strategy. The most prominent failure was when ISIS took over Ramadi: when ISIS conquered the city in mid-May, it was the group's first major victory in Iraq in many months, and prompted strong criticism of the strategy the White House was using to fight ISIS.
"Over the last several months, we've worked to evaluate what is going well in the strategy ... and also to look at setbacks that have taken place, including recently [ISIS]'s move into Ramadi," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said during today's call.
But this isn't a wholesale shift in strategy. The White House's approach is still the same as it has been since it was announced last September: support Iraqi troops with airstrikes, provide Iraqi soldiers with training and equipment, and support a government in Baghdad.
Instead, what the White House is doing here is addressing a criticism that even the most sympathetic observers have been offering: the White House is failing to devote enough resources to its own strategy. After Ramadi fell, a number of observers argued the US wasn't doing enough to build up a Sunni tribal fighting force to challenge ISIS in Anbar. Now 450 new troops are being sent to do just that.
Critics also argued that US airstrikes in the area were too intermittent and missed obvious targets. Now the White House is claiming that new troops can help address the problem.
And another major problem highlighted by the fall of Ramadi was that Iraqi troops didn't have enough anti-tank missiles, the key countermeasure against the vehicle-borne suicide bombings that ISIS used to take the city. McGurk made a point of telling reporters that the US would now be expediting delivery of anti-tank missiles.
In other words, it's wrong to think of this as a wholesale change in administration strategy. Instead, it's a campaign to fix the implementation of the strategy they already have.
What happens if the new plan fails?
It's not obvious, however, that this will be enough to retake Ramadi quickly — let alone, as Slotkin suggested, all of Anbar province. And if it doesn't work quickly enough, the White House will be in a difficult spot.
On the one hand, critics will be pushing the administration to go beyond the current strategy, especially by deploying troops who would serve on the front lines. That wouldn't necessarily mean taking over front-line combat duties against ISIS: the initial commitment critics want is US combat advisers and "spotters" to call in airstrikes.
But those would involve crossing the White House's continued prohibition on using troops for offensive ground combat operations. It is very clear that Obama's instinct is that deploying US combat troops to Iraq, again, would be a terrible mistake. And the president's left flank is already concerned about "mission creep" in Iraq: Sen. Chris Murphy, one of the more vocal progressives on foreign affairs, introduced a bill today to prohibit the use of US ground troops in combat against ISIS.
That's why the success of the new mission is so important. If the Obama administration can show that its strategy is working with this new infusion of resources — which is plausible, given ISIS's fundamentally weak position in Iraq — then it can head off this political problem at the pass. And, more importantly, it can roll back one of the world's nastiest terrorist groups.
But if the plan fails, then the White House's defense of its strategy will start to look an awful lot more hollow.