A July 1st, 2014 Bloomberg article by A.R. Lakshmanan and David Lerman stated, “there are no good options for President Obama in Iraq.” I disagree. Obama has more options than he thinks – three hundred options be exact.
As the violent Salafist/Takfiri terror group, ISIS, advanced on Baghdad – leaving a brutalized trail of terror and thousands of Iraqi bodies in their wake – President Obama announced that he would send three hundred special operations advisors to Iraq. Sometimes small groups, if properly resourced and empowered, can do big things.
This isn’t the first time three hundred warriors were hurled into the breach against a relentless and numerically superior enemy. In case you missed the cult classic movie, 300, from the historical comic by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, I’ll fill you in… In 480 BC, Sparta’s King Leonidas led 300 Spartan warriors called Hoplites, on a suicidal mission to block an advancing horde of 300,000 warriors drawn from throughout the Persian Empire and personally led by the Persian “god-king” Xerxes at the volcanically-active ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae.
In the movie, based on a true story, Leonidas knowingly sealed the fate of his small band of warriors by marching his Spartans directly into the face of the advancing enemy. He knew they could use superior fighting skills and terrain to their advantage and temporarily overmatch the assaulting Persians. And he accepted his small band of warriors couldn’t hold forever. But, Leonidas fully understood the strategic value Spartan valor could have on mobilizing the Greek city-states to rise up against the Persian invasion.
Oh yeah, one more thing – in the movie, Leonidas and his Spartans volunteered to make this one-way journey to “dine in hell” despite being forbidden to do so by tepid, Greek politicians. They understood the magnitude of the unacceptable threat to their homeland if they didn’t act forcibly.
There are several interesting similarities between the movie and the on-going Iraqi crisis. The three hundred special operators sent to Iraq certainly possess the same warrior ethos, volunteer spirit, and tactical acumen that made the Spartans the stuff of legends. Many special ops units include movie lines from 300 in their slogans and unit crests and some of these operators, may ultimately fight ISIS head-on, or through coordinating air interdiction.
For most of these special operators, however — Green Berets in particular — their greatest strength is not to be found in direct combat with ISIS terrorists. Indeed, their potential as advisors and combat multipliers might just represent President Obama’s best strategic option in this embattled and ethnically divided land.
We should have learned over the past decade that we can’t kill our way to victory in Iraq or anywhere else where violent extremists are mobilizing tribal Islamic groups against us. Working by, with, and through indigenous forces, often at a grass-roots level, is a much better option than direct action through large numbers of general purpose forces. In fact, they should have been there all along.
Rather than scoff at the proposed small numbers, when it comes to employing advisors into at-risk, under-governed areas like Iraq, our leaders should learn that quality trumps quantity. This isn’t just cult fiction of computer-enhanced Spartan warriors. Some of the more successful U.S. interventions in assisting at risk-countries involved small numbers of special operations advisors successfully stabilizing contentious countries like El Salvador, Philippines, and Colombia – just to name a few.
Like Leonidas’ 300 Hoplites, and the advisors from other successful campaigns, these special operators in Iraq have great potential and strategic value. But to reach it, four things need to happen:
- U.S. leaders need to stop dabbling in Iraq and act decisively. ISIS represents an existential threat to the American homeland that we must acknowledge and communicate to our people. The 9-11 attack should serve to remind us that there is no room for political posturing on this swiftly gathering threat.
- They need to demonstrate political will and provide top-cover to our small footprint of U.S. Forces. Stop saying ridiculous things like “non-combat” troops to describe them. Get a status of forces agreement to protect our advisors from legal exposure from parts of the Iraqi government that may remain unfriendly to Americans. Provide diplomatic cover and military resources needed to serve as advisers in a high-risk environment.
- Politicians must take a longer view. Stop reacting to what ISIS does and realizethat it takes a very long time to stabilize honor-based societies that: (1) have been ruled by autocrats for decades; (2) have degraded traditional civil societies; (3) and their simmering ethnic and tribal grievances are being actively exploited by violent extremists at every turn.
- Political and military leaders must embrace the role of advisors for building Iraqi capacity. This means not only working with Iraqi security forces, but also with the Sunni tribes and other clan-based groups. ISIS success depends on their ability to mobilize Sunni tribes, yet our current strategy doesn’t address this critical aspect of Iraqi informal society at all. This bottom-up advisory approach won’t be easy since we burned bridges when we left these tribes high and dry in 2011. Yet, it must be done.
Unlike Leonidas and his Spartans, our 300 warriors shouldn’t die at the ‘hot gates’. Quite the contrary, they should serve as a strategic catalyst to turn the tide of ISIS’s extremism and develop conditions for long-term Iraqi stability.
The question is: Do our political leaders have the will to empower these advisers to do it? If not, the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might just roll over our 300… and follow through with his promise, “to see you in New York.”
Scott Mann is retired Green Beret Lieutenant Colonel with almost twenty-three years of service. With combat experience in Colombia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Scott was one of the original architects of the Afghan Village Stability and Afghan Local Police Program. Scott is CEO and Founder of the Stability Institute, www.stabilityinstitute.com, a non-profit organization helping to stabilize under-governed areas around the world.