No matter how much policy makers wish military intervention was a quick and easy business, history shows that even seemingly simple cases wind up being long and difficult. As the United States’ mission in Iraq continues, its easy to see how what on the surface is a simple task has the possibility of being more trying that originally thought.
In coming to the decision to authorize airstrikes in Iraq, Obama, according to one administration official, “did not want to create a slippery slope.” But as Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenko notes, “expansion of humanitarian interventions — beyond what presidents initially claim will be the intended scope and time of military and diplomatic missions — is completely normal. What is remarkable is how congressional members, media commentators, and citizens are newly surprised each time that this happens.”
It’s easy to see how the “no slippery slopes” thinking was in play in the current mission. When President Obama announced on Thursday that he had authorized airstrikes, he sought to comfort the American people by listing a set of limited goals that the use of force was intended to achieve. On the one hand, he intended to halt the advance of forces allied with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) as they made their way towards Erbil, the capital city in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Erbil is also “where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces,” Obama said in his announcement. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.”
On the other hand, the mission — which is going without a name from the Pentagon — intends to provide relief to the Yazidi religious minority, which has thousands of practitioners trapped on Iraq’s Mt. Sunjar after they fled the city of Mosul. The United States, Obama said, would begin airlifting food and water to the Yazidi, utilizing airstrikes to clear a path if necessary. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide,” Obama declared, invoking the power that the term ‘genoicide’ has. “That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”
Those goals, clearly laid out, seem extremely achievable. Though there were reportedly problems with first few drops of aid, where the packages broke upon landing, the process of getting supplies to the Yazidi appears to be progressing relatively smoothly. “They’ve dropped 310 bundles of food, water, and medical supplies, delivering almost 16,000 gallons of water and 75,000 meals,” Lt. General William Mayville, Jr. briefed reporters on Monday. There are also reports of displaced peoples being led off the mountain or airlifted to safety in Kurdistan, theoretically speeding along the time until the airdrops can be halted.
So too the airstrikes against ISIS, which began on Friday, seem to be proceeding as advertised. In the first bombing, the Department of Defense announced that two F/A-18 fighter jets had taken out artillery that ISIS was “using to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil where U.S. personnel are located.” Since then, 15 airstrikes using the aforementioned F/A-18s, F-16 and F-15E fighter jets, and unmanned Predator drones have taken place against ISIS positions. All told, the Pentagon has said that nearly 100 attack, reconnaissance and support missions are now flying daily over Iraqi airspace.
But the problem is that the mission is more expansive than on first reading. For starters, the Yazidi are still under threat. “All possible measures must be taken urgently to avoid a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours – civilians need to be protected on the ground and escorted out of situations of extreme peril,” United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Rita Izsák said in a statement. “We cannot stand by in the face of such atrocities,” Christof Heyns, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, agreed. “International actors must do all in their power to support those on the ground with the capacity to protect lives.”
And while pressing, the main reason that Obama gave for intervening wasn’t the well-being of the Yazidi. Instead, Obama listed the protection of U.S personnel stationed in Erbil and other parts of Iraq as paramount. Those personnel, military and civilian, will remain in place for the foreseeable future, unless the situation becomes bad enough that at least the latter are forced to flee. The military advisers don’t seem to be going anywhere soon, though, as the Pentagon has also announced that it will begin directly arming the Kurdish security forces — known as peshmerga — rather than channeling them through Baghdad as it previously had. And reports on Tuesday indicate that Obama is considering adding another 75 military advisers in the country, on top of the nearly 800 he’s already sent.
The administration is already trying to lower expectations for what the airstrikes were intended to achieve. “In no way do I want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by” ISIS, Mayville told reporters on Monday. But that isn’t halting critics from urging the president to move beyond the articulated goals of the mission. “It’s almost worse than nothing because I fear the president is threatening and then he won’t follow through,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said of the mission to the Daily Beast. “It’s the weakest possible response and we cannot allow them to take Erbil. What [the administration has] done so far is almost meaningless.”
Adding even more military heft to American support to Iraq may have just gotten easier, as the political crisis that has consumed Bagdhad for months may be close to resolution. Newly elected president Fuad Masum chose to ask Hayder al-Abadi to form a new government, rather than caretaker prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki’s leadership,which he intended to extend for a third term, had been a major obstacle to the U.S. providing greater assistance in the fight against Iraq. Though in moving tanks and soldiers to protect the Green Zone over the weekend prompted fears of a coup, Maliki on Tuesday instructed the Iraqi security forces to stay out of the the political struggle and focus on protecting the country.
As Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, the U.S. is “prepared to consider additional political, economic, and security options as Iraq starts to build a new government and very much calculated to try to help stabilize the security situation, to expand economic development, and to strengthen the democratic institutions.” Just what those additional options entail has yet to be discussed in detail with the press. But given the current scope of the mission, it’s hard to see what more could be added without then having to also expand not only the time spent in Iraq, but also the goals of the mission itself.