US must beware of ‘mission creep' in Iraq

Mission creep is the process whereby a military commitment made under one rationale morphs into something larger and more dangerous. That is exactly the risk the Obama administration is running in Iraq.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disagrees. He prefers the term “mission match,” by which he seems to mean doing what is needed to get the job done without getting drawn into a major military commitment.

But exactly what “job” is the Obama administration trying to get done in Iraq? To restore morale to the Iraqi army? To decisively defeat the Islamic State? To stand up a broad-based, nonsectarian government in Baghdad?

None of these goals can be achieved by sending in special operations forces or launching drone strikes.

The truth is that injecting more U.S. weapons, trainers or combat troops into Iraq is likely to make matters worse. U.S. personnel will come under fire at some point, regardless of whether they are called trainers or troops, and any casualties suffered could lead the U.S. military command to send additional forces to protect those already in Iraq.

In fact, a recent Pentagon assessment suggests that U.S. trainers may even come under fire from their alleged allies among pro-Iraqi government forces, which are composed in significant part of anti-U.S. Shiite militia members.

Other military pose their own serious risks. Bombing, no matter how “pin-point,” will cause civilian casualties, spurring a political backlash against the United States and providing the Islamic State with a recruiting tool. Sending more arms could just mean more weapons falling into the hands of the Islamic State.

Hopefully, President Barack Obama is more concerned about “mission creep” than Dempsey appears to be. No one in the Obama administration is suggesting the kind of boots-on-the-ground mission that ended up with the deployment of more than 150,000 troops to Iraq at the peak of the most recent U.S. intervention there. But it’s worth reminding ourselves what that much larger intervention did and did not accomplish.

After the initial rationales for the war — Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s purported ties to al-Qaida — fell apart, the administration fell back on the neoconservative argument that the United States could implant a liberal democracy in Iraq by force.

The quest to create a democratic Iraq under U.S. occupation was doomed from the start. The most glaring error was the decision by the Bush administration to dissolve the Iraqi army and remove key members of Hussein’s Baath Party from government positions — a process known as “de-Baathification.”

This left hundreds of thousands of jobless, angry Sunnis — many with guns and military training — willing and able to oppose the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Just as U.S. policies helped spark the insurgency that gave birth to the Islamic State, they inadvertently abetted the increase in sectarian violence now plaguing the country. In the final years of the war, Shiite militias were able to act under the umbrella of U.S. military presence to cleanse large parts of Baghdad of Sunnis.

The government of Noori al-Maliki, which took power with U.S. support, has repressed Sunnis throughout Iraq and kept them out of meaningful positions in the government.

In short, the fruits of almost a decade of war, trillions of dollars, and more than 100,000 casualties on all sides is the al-Maliki government, along with the terrorist and sectarian violence it has helped to provoke. Will U.S. intervention now, in a more complex, chaotic situation, do any better?

The pursuit of “mission match” in the current situation in Iraq is a dangerous fantasy that will only get the United States more deeply embroiled in a civil war while exacerbating the problems that started the conflict in the first place. The Obama administration should pull back now before the momentum of intervention takes on a life of its own.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune.