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The next map shows the larger strategic vulnerability of Irbil, with Sunni enclaves to both the west and south, and an uncertain mix of conditions to the east, on the other side of the Iranian border. The Sunni areas are ISIS’s recruiting grounds; the enclave of Sulaymaniyah and its corridor from Iran are big question marks in terms of friendliness to the U.S. presence.

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The threat problem here is not that ISIS will be able to conquer and occupy Kurdish territory, but that it will be able to infiltrate Kurdish territory to conduct attacks on the U.S. forces in Irbil as well as the Kurds. (One form of attack, we must not forget, is the use of anti-air missiles. The one thing a guerrilla force with shorter-range, lower-altitude missiles usually has trouble doing is getting close to the airfield where the aircraft have to take off and land. Oops.)
The size and character of the U.S. contingent that will be in Irbil are not suited for taking the fight to guerrilla troops operating in the local area. Our force will have to rely on the Kurds for that: for keeping ISIS fighters too far away to inflict significant damage on us. We’ll have air assets to support them with, but security for our base is not something we’ll have the final say over, in terms of its operational priority in the fight or the comfort level we might prefer.
We’ll be depending on a condition we may very well not have, at least not for long: i.e., that Irbil doesn’t need to be heavily fortified or built up. Besides the helicopters (it’s not clear if we have standard-issue Apaches, Black Hawks, or perhaps special forces helicopters based at Irbil) and the Ospreys, we’ll be moving in ground support for strike-fighters and large batches of weaponry, along with the airframes themselves. The attractiveness of the Irbil air base as a target will increase dramatically. And even if we harden the facility itself, hardening the approaches to it – keeping a guerrilla force from being able to get close to it – is going to be difficult, if there is any breach in the Kurds’ defense of Irbil as an urban stronghold.
There won’t be a secure ground line of communication (GLOC) between Irbil and the rest of Iraq. But this will not be like the 2001 entry into Afghanistan, which we made with a clear-cut and measureable purpose, and for which we had the prior buy-in of a key neighbor: Pakistan. Expanding our footprint at Irbil, with no GLOC and no formal relations with the nearest neighbor, Iran, is one of the longest-tether and most exposed things we’ve ever done.
Now add to that mix the likelihood that an unusually well-organized, well-funded ISIS can exploit shifting loyalties – or at the very least can wield intimidation – among every local faction that is not Kurdish, and perhaps it will be clear the kind of danger we are courting. ISIS isn’t going to just sit still while we increase our footprint and ramp up bombing operations, while not changing our methods or operational objectives.
Inside our “OODA loop
In fact, ISIS hasn’t sat still. Once Obama made his speech on Wednesday, the option of mounting coordinated attacks on ISIS’s strategic rear in Syria immediately became a major threat posed by the U.S. If we could do it effectively, we could force ISIS to defend its rear: shift resources away from the campaign in Iraq, and perhaps even rework its overall strategy.
So ISIS promptly took out nearly 50 opposition rebel leaders and signed its non-aggression agreement with America’s potential partners in Syria.
Remember that ISIS doesn’t have to show good faith over time with any of those Syrian factions. It just has to preempt their cooperation with the United States. The mechanism for that is straightforward. We’re an easy read – ponderous making decisions, easily spooked, committed to at least perfunctory public transparency – and our president is a slow learner.
If ISIS can prevent anyone in Syria from cooperating with the U.S., ISIS can concentrate its effort in Iraq, where our forces on the ground will be: small, scattered, un-concentrated, embedded with local groups which may not all be fighting for the same objectives. Remember this also: Obama is determined not to overlay an obtrusively coherent U.S. framework on this operation. Kurds fighting in northern Iraq and Sunnis fighting along the Euphrates in Anbar – each with a separate ill-defined connection to the struggling Shia-majority government in Baghdad – will have the lead.
Even in Vietnam and Somalia, I don’t think we’ve ever backed into anything with our hindquarters flapping quite so egregiously in the breeze. Military success doesn’t just happen. It’s as much a matter of political will, and a coherent strategy and operational plan, as it is of training, expertise, and weapons superiority at the tactical level. Assuming we do go ahead with the plan-deficient, few-boots non-war the Obama administration has been proclaiming for the last 72 hours, I am very concerned that American troops could find themselves vulnerable under fire and fighting for their lives within weeks.
I would actually feel better at this point if we weren’t enlarging our footprint in Irbil at all, but instead planned to just keeping flying strike-fighters from Kuwait and Qatar. There are sound operational reasons to be gravely concerned about Obama’s decision to dismiss the advice of his military leaders and go with a toxic brew of half-measure objectives and exposed deployment situations.
The rapid, cynical, homicidal initiative shown by ISIS in seeking to neutralize Obama’s Syria option is a pretty good indicator of what we’ll be up against. Pundits and officials who are vocally criticizing the president are not just showing partisan sour grapes. This is real, and it’s bad.
Read more at http://libertyunyielding.com/2014/09/13/isis-promptly-outflanks-obamas-new-strategy-neutralizes-syrian-opposition/#a61mS7KrxUeeDpyG.99

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J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.