Reminiscent of the film 300 in which King Leonidas and his small band of heroes hold back the Persian army, the 300 military advisers President Barack Obama is sending to assist the government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq will need Spartan-like capabilities in order to help stem the tide of fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) rolling toward Baghdad. The situation of the al-Maliki government is perilous due to thousands of government troops trained by the U.S. vanishing from the field to allow the ISIS fighters to make advances through a large swath of Sunni majority territory within the western portion of the country. Many surmise that al-Maliki’s actions to remove Sunni professional officers from the army in order to be replaced by newer Shiite loyalists led to the abandonment of the field by numerous soldiers.
The Iraqi government faces a difficult situation after ISIS fighters took the city of Mosul and have continued to advance. Commentators with knowledge of the political inner workings of Iraq state that the local warlords previously helpful in the U.S. led surge have now turned the tables and have thrown their support to ISIS and are working in concert with the officers previously sent packing by al-Maliki. Because of the factional nature of the country, many also believe the army deserted its positions because the Shiite officers and soldiers did not want to risk themselves protecting Sunni dominated territory. The simple message from the American advisers to the leaders of the Iraqi army could simply be to stand and fight. If the Iraqi army fails to follow the simple advice, the only way the 300 advisers sent by President Obama can stop the advance is through mythic Spartan capabilities similar to the 2007 film.
President Obama said the advisers would be sent in teams of a dozen or so and the number would be up to 300 in total. Each group will be embedded with the Iraqi army. The first group would assist the Iraqis at the senior headquarter level and others will eventually perform their advisory role at the brigade level. An important function of the advisers will be to determine and assess the needs and capabilities of the government forces in Iraq. The President has said that the U.S. advisers will not be used for identifying possible air strike targets and America will not undertake air strikes, but in vocal sleight of hand Pentagon officials have noted that the advisers could possibly assist Iraqis in identifying strike areas and the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier has moved into the Persian Gulf.
Al-Maliki is under pressure to create a more inclusive government in Iraq, but asking him to completely change his governing style while fighting back the ISIS incursion is a tall order. President Obama is wary of mission creep as al-Maliki requests urgent assistance. To some degree, the U.S. must take some action in order to avoid having Iran fill the void to help the adjacent Shiite led state. As with many situations, the current status on the ground in Iraq does not really allow for any good options for U.S. policymakers, only a laundry list of difficult options. For the 300 advisers President Obama has tasked with assessing the Iraqi government army, the evaluation will most likely be more in the nature of “not very capable” instead of Spartan-like.
Opinion by William Costolo