A powerful message of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidential election in 2008 was his intention to withdraw United States forces from Iraq. After taking office the intention was eventually fulfilled, with combat forces leaving by the end of 2011. During his path to the White House he presented Afghanistan in a different light, not least because of its stronger link with the 9/11 attacks. Eventually, in 2010, he agreed to a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops that would it was hoped constrain the Taliban and enable an orderly withdrawal in conditions where the movement could not re-establish its former dominance.
In the event, the Taliban was not constrained. Yet the Afghanistan campaign was also increasingly unpopular in the American homeland, and the Obama administration ultimately set a date of the end of 2014 to reduce US troop levels to 10,800, a tenth of the numbers in 2010, with a further reduction to 5,000 by the end of 2015.
The strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, then, would see an end to tens of thousands of “boots on the ground”, coupled with huge caution over any future substantial troop commitments. But security by other means was by no means ruled out; in particular, the use of armed drones, special forces, privatised military, and many other forms of "remote control" would be enhanced. The expectation was that by early 2015 the United States would have finally divested itself of messy and failed involvements in two major wars stretching over fourteen years (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012).
The new context
The reality is very different. In Afghanistan there are serious doubts about a further drawdown. That is indicated, among other sources, by a decision to transfer the US army's 7th infantry division headquarters from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma in Washington state to Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan for a one-year deployment (see Adam Ashton, "Army to send headquarters group to Kandahar in first sign of revision to Afghan withdrawal plan", McClatchyDC, 24 February 2015).
The numbers involved at this stage are small, barely a hundred, and they join the 2,000 US military personnel still at Kandahar airfield. But the real significance is in the context. The 7th infantry division as a whole has six brigades with 15,000 personnel but has not previously deployed to Afghanistan. By sending this core unit on a one-year deployment, the army will be in a strong position to reinforce its presence in southern Afghanistan rapidly if circumstances demand. In short, the drawdown from Afghanistan now looks likely to be far more protracted than expected - and could well be reversed.
In Iraq, site of the other major US intervention of the post-9/11 era, a comparable process is underway (see "Afghanistan-Iraq: back to the future", 27 November 2014). There, the departure of US forces in 2011 was never as complete as it appeared, nor the conflicts sparked by the 2003 invasion ever ended. But today, a renewed war is intensifying, and at a rate far greater than is being reported in the western media.
The war is being run by US Central Command (Centcom), the unified military authority responsible for US security interests over the vast area from south Asia through the Middle East to north-east Africa. Centcom has just released details of the first six months of the air war against Islamic State and, in a separate statement, reported that an estimated 8,500 of IS's fighters had been killed. There is no way of independently verifying the figure or questioning how many were civilians, but the intensity of the airstrikes and the nature of the targeting raise many questions.
Centcom says that 4,817 targets were hit in the first six months; based on earlier analysis, these would have involved some 7,000 air- and armed-drone sorties with as many as 6,000 missiles and bombs used. This scale of attack, far larger than in recent years in Afghanistan, would mostly have had modest objectives (destroying trucks and firing positions, for example), with little directed at strategic targets. This may mainly be due to lack of intelligence as to where the latter are; but almost certainly, it stems also from the dispersal of the leadership and organisational elements of Islamic State.
What is striking about this data from Centcom is that it coincides with a report to Congress by the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency which gives a sober assessment of the progress of the war. He said that Islamic State might have suffered some reversals but predicted that it would “continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, while fighting also for territory outside those areas” (see "Islamic State: bring on the drones", 19 February 2015).
The implication is that an intense air war is not threatening Islamic State’s survival and is set to last for many months yet. In turn this will require more concerted efforts to train Iraqi army troops, with much of the responsibility falling on special forces from western states (rather than regular troops). Indeed, special-force personnel from Canada, Germany, Australia, and Britain as well as the US are already operating in Iraq (see "Islamic State: the unknown war", 28 January 2015).
It is highly likely that Islamic State paramilitaries will now make it a priority to try and kill or capture people from these units. This threat was the main reason why the UK government reversed its plan to increase the number of regular troops engaged in training Iraqi army forces (see "Islamic State: the unknown war", 28 January 2015). But what applies to regular troops does not apply to the typically “below the radar” use of special forces, which are now well ensconced inside Iraq.
If Islamic State were to succeed in the coming weeks in this objective, and if western special-force personnel ended up facing the same appalling fate of the young Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh, it is very difficult to judge the public reaction, not least in Britain in the run-up to a general election. This is but one of the many dilemmas that current planners may be forced to confront as the war in Iraq continues to unfold.