Think the Obama administration isn’t getting its hands dirty in the fight against the Islamic State? The facts say otherwise.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
In Washington foreign-policy circles, there is an allergy to history, especially of the recent varieties that could illuminate current policy debates. Thucydides, the Founding Fathers, Carl von Clausewitz, and Winston Churchill (and other assorted men of history) are acceptable touchstones and references for historical reflection, but the foreign-policy objectives of current or recent White House occupants are referred to far less frequently. The common reason offered is that the United States finds itself in the current situation and should focus exclusively on forging a way ahead. And, in my experience, when recent illuminating history is raised, the response one gets is: “Well, yes, OK, but what should we do now?”
President Barack Obama faces yet another “what to do now” question with regards to his anti-Islamic State strategy in response to Russia’s 2-week-old bombing campaign in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman declared broadly, “Barack Obama is under pressure, at home and abroad, to restore the image of American strength by responding more forcefully,” while Zbigniew Brzezinski proposed “strategic boldness” in the form of destroying Russian air and naval assets if President Vladimir Putin did not stop his country’s attacks in Syria. Although there have reportedly been White House or State Department reviews of military options (for five years now, actually), it does not appear that Obama will authorize a significant, overt U.S. military escalation within Iraq or Syria.
Before diving into what the United States should do now regarding its anti-Islamic State strategy, it is essential to first look back and analyze exactly how the United States has arrived at where it is. Claims that Obama is demonstrating “restraint” or is “doing nothing” overlook the gradual accretion of U.S. forces and arms shipments, and the enlarging scopes of the missions being undertaken. When listening to debates about what to do now in Syria, please bear in mind the history of the last year-and-a-half. To help readers do this, here is your official “mission creep” timeline of the 15 most significant military policy declarations since June 2014, when the Islamic State’s uprising in Iraq dramatically escalated.
June 16, 2014: The White House announces the deployment of 275 military personnel “to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.” Eleven days later, a U.S. official confirms that armed drones began flying over Baghdad on June 26 to provide protection for 180 U.S. military advisors stationed in the area.
June 30, 2014: Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby announces that two special operations teams of 40 personnel will be deployed to Iraq to “assess the cohesiveness and readiness of Iraqi security forces, higher headquarters in Baghdad, and examine the most effective and efficient way to introduce follow-on advisors.” He says these teams will be joined by four additional teams of 50 people and announces an additional 90 troops have been assigned to “help stand up the Baghdad joint operations center.”
Aug. 7, 2014: Obama declares “America is coming to help” with limited strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel,” and “a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.” In conjunction with these airstrikes, more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of water are airdropped for the threatened Yazidis around Mount Sinjar.
Aug. 13, 2014: The White House announces that 130 military advisors will be sent to Iraq, bringing the total number of U.S. military personnel to more than 1,000, to “assess the situation on Sinjar Mountain and in northern Iraq … [and] make recommendations about how to follow through on an effort to get the people off that mountain into a safe place.”
Aug. 18, 2014: The United States helps Kurdish and Iraqi forces retake control of the Mosul Dam. Obama says, “If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would have threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad.”
Sept. 10, 2014: Obama declares his anti-Islamic State strategy, promising “a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists” with the declared strategic objective to “degrade and ultimately destroy [the Islamic State].” Five days later, the United States launches its first strikes in Syria against the Islamic State and the Khorasan Group, described by U.S. Central Command as a “network of seasoned [al Qaeda] veterans.”
Sept. 18, 2014: Congress passes the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, authorizing the Department of Defense to “provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups,” with the mission of defending Syrians from the Islamic State, protecting the United States and allies, and promoting conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the Syrian civil war. The train and equip program is estimated to cost $500 million.
Nov. 7, 2014: Obama authorizes the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq “to train, advise, and assist Iraqi security forces, including Kurdish forces,” and for U.S. personnel to conduct these missions at Iraqi military facilities outside of Baghdad and Erbil.
Dec. 19, 2014: Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announces that 1,300 more troops will be deployed to Iraq. “Their mission will be to train, advise and assist Iraqi security forces…. What makes this [deployment] different is simply the geography,” Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said.
Feb. 11, 2015: The White House issues a draft authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, in connection with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, approving the continued use of force to degrade and defeat the Islamic State and providing flexibility for “limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.” This AUMF would expire in three years. After four exclusive congressional hearings on the proposed AUMF, there have been no serious proposals to pass the legislation, and it is unlikely it would be considered until the 115th Congress in 2017.
July 12, 2015: The first U.S.-trained Syrian rebels (54 in total) cross the Jordanian border into Syria. Immediately, two of the rebel unit leaders and several fighters are captured, and the unit is attacked by an al Qaeda affiliate. A second group is dispatched on Sept. 20, 2015, and just two days later it hands over 25 percent of its U.S.-supplied weapons to al-Nusra Front, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, to gain safe passage while relocating its headquarters to a town in northern Syria.
July 23, 2015: The United States announces that Turkey has agreed to allow the U.S. military access to Incirlik air base in order to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State. Twenty days later, the United States flies its first manned airstrikes from Incirlik air base.
Sept. 16, 2015: Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth says Obama does not need an AUMF after all, but rather can exercise his Article II commander-in-chief authorities to authorize U.S. airstrikes if Syrian rebels, “meaning the T&E [train and equip] forces that we’ve trained,” are attacked by the Assad regime in Syria.
Oct. 9, 2015: The White House announces a “pause” in the train and equip program, pledging instead, “We will be taking some of the leaders of these groups who are already fighting on the ground, putting them through the same rigorous vetting process that we have used in the original program, and then giving them basic equipment packages to distribute to their fighting force.”
Oct. 11, 2015: American C-17 cargo planes drop 50 tons of ammunition, M-16s and AK-47s, grenades, and mortar and rocket-propelled grenade rounds to 5,000 Arab fighters battling the Islamic State in northern Syria. The Department of Defense does not identify the groups, but says that their “leaders were appropriately vetted by the United States and have been fighting to remove ISIL from northern Syria” and claims that the supplies “reached friendly forces.” It has been reported that Kurdish groups received most of the ammunition. At a press briefing later that week, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook does not provide details but claims, “My understanding is that this specifically went to Syrian Arab forces.”
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To summarize, what began Aug. 8, 2014, with 25 airstrikes in the first week and food and water airdropped to save threatened Yazidis, has morphed and expanded into 600 bombs being dropped per week and more than 100 bundles of ammunition supplied to an unnamed faction of 5,000 Syrian rebels — who were apparently appropriately vetted in under 24 hours, the time between Wormuth’s “rigorous vetting process” statement and the airdrop of the weapons. (Ironically, this same day, an anonymous State Department official admitted for the first time, “We are aware that some moderate opposition groups have coordinated tactically with Nusra out of necessity.”) This shift over time is a reflection of the inevitable reality of mission creep that is inherent and accompanies virtually all U.S. military interventions, despite the initial pledges of presidents to prevent this.
When Obama first approved airstrikes to protect U.S. personnel and the Yazidis, he opined: “Typically, what happens with mission creep is when we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves.” Forget that the United States is overwhelmingly doing the air campaign by itself. Mission creep occurs not due to unilateral impulses, but rather from a change in the military calculus of the fighters on the ground and the behavior of their external patrons. Because Russian aircraft are conducting airstrikes on behalf of the Assad regime, the United States and its Gulf partners are covertly and overtly increasing the flow of weapons to both anti-Islamic State and anti-Assad rebel forces. Incremental additions of bombs or weapons by pro- or anti-Assad external sponsors will inevitably be matched by the opposing coalition. This is by definition a major power proxy war.
Mission creep has occurred because Obama, as I have written repeatedly, continues to pursue a strategic objective that is totally unachievable. The United States and the other 61 members of the “coalition,” either solely or in combination with Iraqi and Syrian ground forces, simply will not commit the degree of military power needed to ensure that Assad falls or the Islamic State is destroyed. This is even more so given the Russian intervention and the reported significant deployment of Iranian ground forces or Iranian-sponsored militias. On Oct. 2, Obama pledged, “When I make a decision about the level of military involvement that we’re prepared to engage in, in Syria, I have to make a judgment based on, once we start something we’ve got to finish it, and we’ve got to do it well.” Unfortunately, he already made this misjudgment in September 2014 when he declared the wholly unrealistic strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State.
This is evident given that the United States is absolutely no closer to achieving this than when the first bombs fell 14 months ago. On Tuesday, Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the name for the U.S. military intervention against the Islamic State, proclaimed, “We are able to eliminate [Islamic State] fighters as fast as they’re able to recruit them,” and agreed with a journalist’s estimate that 20,000 fighters have been killed so far. In other words, the Islamic State has exactly the same fighting capabilities now as they did 14 months ago. If the size of an adversarial force you intend to “ultimately destroy” remains static, despite 7,323 airstrikes, then it could be as much an indication of their success as it is yours.
So with this background in mind, what should Obama do? In 1966, Sen. George Aiken famously proposed for the United States, regarding Vietnam, to “declare victory and get out.” The most responsible path for the White House now is to “declare reality and get in.” This begins by recognizing that, just as there is no military solution, which both American and Russian officials claim while behaving otherwise, there is no resolution to the Syrian civil war without the explicit cooperation of the external powers that fuel and steer the conflict.
When a war is at its most bloody, it is easy to forget that all wars end. The Syrian civil war will end as well, but the external powers ensuring that it continues refuse to recognize the reality of the disastrous military stalemate. Therefore, they have refused to attempt to seriously and vigorously broker a cease-fire and eventual diplomatic solution. For Obama, this should be as important an objective for him personally as the Iranian nuclear deal was. If not, he will leave office in 15 months with the Islamic State the same size, Assad still in power, and the livelihoods of a generation of Syrians destroyed.
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