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The Case For U.S. Combat Troops In Iraq


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The U.S. launched another round of air strikes against the so-called Islamic State. This time the target was a group of ISIS leaders near Mosul in northern Iraq. The attack came on the same day, Friday, when President Obama announced that the U.S. will send another 1,500 troops to Iraq, doubling the current number. They'll be deployed in noncombat roles, acting as advisors and trainers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS. James Jeffrey served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. And he said the decision to send more U.S. forces back to that country is a good thing.

JAMES JEFFREY: These troops will play a big role in building up nine Iraqi brigades, that's about 20,000 troops, and three Kurdish peshmurga brigades, about 4,000 or 5,000 more, to take on ISIS and eventually go into an offensive role and start retaking territory in the Sunni-Arab parts of the country.

MARTIN: The U.S. has spent billions of dollars, as you know, already training and assisting Iraqi troops for many years. Why aren't they already able to be in an offensive position at this point?

JEFFREY: First of all, they're going to have U.S. air power. But you actually have hit the nail on the head, Rachel, because I and others have advocated that these teams should be out in the field with these brigades - 2,000 troops - or even down at the battalion level, 500 men actually in face-to-face combat with ISIS. If you have that, you not only have much better close, air support coordination capability, but frankly, these American officers and NCOs will demonstrate on the ground how to behave in a combat environment. And Iraqis will follow their lead.

But we're not at that point yet. The president has ruled that out. That's a mistake. But he's moving closer to it. And I think that to really take territory from a tough foe like ISIS, he's going to have to do this eventually.

MARTIN: What is your take on the air strikes? Have they been effective?

JEFFREY: They have been effective in containing ISIS advances into non-Sunni-Arab areas. And of course, as a Sunni-Arab religious force ultimately, ISIS has the most rapport, if you will, with the population in those areas. When they've tried to move against the Kurds and combining in Kobani in Syria or near Erbil in Iraq or into the Shia or mixed areas around Baghdad, they've run into a lot of resistance. And they've run into effective American air strikes.

But the proof of the pudding in this entire operation that the president has correctly launched us on, which is to destroy ISIS, is taking terrain in the Sunni-Arab areas. That requires offensive action by very competent forces linked with U.S. airpower and U.S. advisors and with local Arab tribes or other militias, if you will, rising up on the ground and fighting against them. That's a very complicated and long-term mission.

MARTIN: The Sunni sheikhs of Anbar were critical in the U.S. war in Iraq. The Sunni awakening was incredibly important for the U.S. to turn that war around. Where are those same Sunni leaders now? Where are their loyalties?

JEFFREY: They're split. Some of them have actually been fighting. Those who have Ba'athist tendencies supporting Saddam Hussein have been fighting with ISIS. Others are fighting courageously with the Iraqi government and with us. Others are sitting on the fence. But they're facing massacres - the Abu Nader tribe near Hit in Anbar Province two weeks ago. And I've just heard that the Jaborri tribe, which is a bigger tribe and a very significant tribe, has had hundreds of its people rounded up. ISIS is not making and winning hearts and minds by this. But they are exercising effective control. These people will rise up, but only if we act quickly. The longer we wait, the more ISIS is going to dig in. That's one of my concerns with this campaign.

MARTIN: Act how? What does the U.S. need to do in order to get that Sunni support?

JEFFREY: We need to get people in there. We need to get weapons in there. We need to ensure that those folks - through perhaps liaison cells of Americans on the ground. That would be dangerous, but it was necessary last time.

MARTIN: So they need to see that the U.S. has skin in the game, that they're committed.

JEFFREY: Exactly. And, for example, that we can give them effective air support. That requires, usually, a few people on the ground. But there's a real resistance on the administration to do this. The administration seems to think they have all the time in the world. I don't think the tribes in Anbar think that we have a lot of time.

MARTIN: Former ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey. He's a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He joined us in our studios here in Washington. Ambassador, thank you so much.

JEFFREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.