Shadow Government

Can the Pentagon Still Save the U.S. from Obama’s ISIS Failure?

If Obama won't do it, maybe Ash Carter will.

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It’s about time. More than three weeks after the massacres in Paris, four days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11, and only after he’d completed a foreign jaunt to rally the world to fight the scourge of, umm, climate change, U.S. President Barack Obama at last spoke to the nation about what he’s doing to keep America safe from the so-called Islamic State. But like so much else of the president’s policy, it all had the feel of being a day late and a dollar short.

Since Paris, the administration has been rightly pilloried over its anti-ISIS strategy. For years now, it’s consistently downplayed the threat and what it would take to defeat it. Invariably reactive, never anticipatory. A steady drip, drip, drip of incrementalism that has always seemed more focused on doing just enough to quiet critics at home than doing whatever is necessary to achieve strategic effects abroad.

Perhaps most unsettling, the president is clearly more comfortable playing detached academic than wartime commander-in-chief. Aloof, out of touch, almost clueless at times. Seemingly incapable of conveying the sense of urgency that the moment requires and the country craves. Oblivious to the fact that having launched a war against an enemy dedicated to our destruction, he must now make winning that war his absolute highest priority. Not climate change. Not shuttering Guantanamo. Not gun control. But disrupting, dismantling, and defeating a global jihadist insurgency before it leaves a trail of blood and mayhem across America and Europe — Paris and San Bernardino times 10 — that will change our free societies forever.

If there is a silver lining in this bleak landscape, it’s almost certainly at the Pentagon. The new leadership team of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chief’s Chairman General Joseph Dunford actually do seem to get it. “We’re at war,” Carter refreshingly declared in congressional testimony last week. Can anyone recall the president being as blunt with the American people?

More importantly, Carter and Dunford appear to grasp how woefully deficient Obama’s strategy has been so far. “We have not contained ISIS,” Dunford told Congress on Dec. 1, directly contradicting the now infamous assessment put forward by the president just hours before the streets of Paris ran red. They clearly understand that much more must be done — and quickly. And to their credit, they have succeeded in getting Obama to accept more changes to his strategy in the past three months than were made in the previous 12 combined. Most were actually in train before Paris. Others were announced in its aftermath. You would hope that in the wake of San Bernardino, still others might yet be forthcoming — Obama’s stay-the-course rhetoric from Sunday night aside.

Several of the new initiatives merit mention — even if Obama proved largely incapable of articulating them in his Oval Office address:

  1. Directly arming the Syrian Arab-Kurdish Coalition. In early October, the U.S. air dropped 50 tons worth of weapons to an Arab-Kurdish coalition in northeastern Syria dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It was the first delivery of U.S. weapons to the YPG, which has been far and away the most effective ground force fighting ISIS in Syria. Already, since late 2014, U.S. air strikes have helped the YPG clear the Islamic State out from most of its positions along the Turkish-Syrian border. The arms supply relationship will further strengthen the Arab-Kurdish forces, which the U.S. has identified as the main ground component that will now be, according to Carter, “focused on moving south to isolate ISIL’s nominal capital of Raqqa, with the ultimate objective of collapsing its control of the city.” A second U.S. weapons shipment, bigger than the first, arrived in mid-November, whereupon the coalition quickly proceeded to drive the Islamic State out of the Syrian town of al Hawl near the Iraqi border, seizing 900 square kilometers and further isolating the Islamic State in Iraq from its Syrian stronghold.
  2. Embedding U.S. special operations forces with the Syrian Kurds. At the end of October, U.S. relations with the Arab-Kurdish coalition got a further boost when President Obama ordered up to 50 special operators to northeastern Syria. These forces will almost certainly be deployed at the front lines of the war with the Islamic State, including in the upcoming battle for Raqqa, advising and supporting rebel troops engaged in direct combat. According to Secretary Carter, “What they are doing there is they are enabling local forces, a mixture of Kurds and Syrian Arabs who want to fight ISIL …. [T]his small, very elite group is intended to bring to bear all that the United States can bring to bear, in the way of intelligence, air power and so forth.” While small in size, the move marked a significant escalation for Obama, the first time he had agreed to position U.S. soldiers on the ground in Syria for an extended time. Moreover, Carter has repeatedly signaled that the U.S. will not hesitate to deploy further special operations forces to Syria as additional opportunities arise.
  3. Expanding role for U.S. forces in Iraq. Several thousand U.S. forces have been in Iraq for much of the past year, advising and training the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga. But their distance from the actual fight against ISIS appears to be growing shorter. Thus, in late October, a U.S. army commando was killed in a joint operation with Kurdish units to free prisoners held by the Islamic State — the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. In mid-November, credible reports emerged that U.S. special operations forces were near the front lines during the battle for Sinjar, directing air strikes on behalf of Kurdish troops engaged in the city’s liberation. Similar reports suggest that U.S. forces could well be engaged in a similar effort now with Iraqi Security Forces as they prepare to re-take the Sunni city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. U.S. commandos have worked especially closely with Iraq’s most capable units, the Counter-Terrorism Forces, which have a lead role in the effort to liberate Ramadi. Finally, from bases inside Iraq, U.S. forces have in recent months been supplementing air strikes against the Islamic State with increasing ground-based firepower, using highly precise rocket artillery systems.
  4. Deploying a “Special Expeditionary Targeting Force.” Last week, Carter announced that the U.S. would be sending an elite task force of commandos to Iraq on a standing basis. Led by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the force’s mission would include an aggressive campaign of raids to capture/kill Islamic State leadership, gather intelligence, rescue hostages, and disrupt Islamic State operations. In Iraq, the force would conduct raids “at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” while in Syria it would be able to act unilaterally. According to Carter, “It puts everybody on notice in Syria. You don’t know at night who’s coming in the window. And that’s the sensation that we want all of ISIL’s leadership and followers to have.”
  1. Intensifying the air war. In his testimony last week, Carter confirmed that — thanks to improved intelligence — airstrikes against the Islamic State targets increased significantly in November, to the highest level since the start of operations in August, 2014. The U.S. has also dramatically stepped up its attacks on the Islamic State’s sources of revenue, particularly oil. In what appeared to be a modification in the rules of engagement that followed immediately on the heels of the Paris attacks, U.S. aircraft for the first time targeted Islamic State tanker trucks, destroying nearly 400 that were preparing to carry Islamic State oil to market. Carter pledged “There’s more to come,” and has suggested publicly that the overly-restrictive rules of engagement for the air war should be loosened. Gen. Dunford claimed that the escalated targeting of Islamic State oil infrastructure, including wells and processing facilities, as well as other important economic targets, had recently disrupted a whopping 43 percent of the Islamic State’s revenue stream.
  1. Increasing weapons shipments to anti-Assad rebels. This is a covert program run by the CIA rather than the Pentagon. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan are among Washington’s partners. The program funnels weapons to various non-Islamic State groups that have been fighting the Assad regime. The groups have been vetted by the CIA and supposedly do not include the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front or other hardline jihadist elements. Most are said to be associated with the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella organization founded by ex-Syrian military officers. The bulk of the weapons allegedly come from the stocks of America’s regional allies who also deliver them to the field after receiving U.S. approval.

By far and away the most important system delivered has been the U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile. Since Russia began its air campaign in support of the Assad regime on Sept. 30, CIA-supported rebels claim that they have been receiving virtually unlimited supplies of TOWs. “Carte blanche,” is how one described it. The TOWs have been used with devastating effect to counter a major ground offensive that Assad’s forces launched in early October, backed by approximately 2,000 troops from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as thousands more from Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias made up of Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shiites. In the month of October alone, TOW firings were reportedly up 850 percent from the month before Russia’s intervention. Potentially hundreds of Syrian tanks, armored vehicles, and other battlefield vehicles have been destroyed.

While the sheer intensity of Russia’s aerial bombardment may be slowly but surely grinding the rebels down, the TOWs have played an outsized role in blunting the ground offensive’s success. By all accounts, the results of the Russian-led campaign have been disappointing so far, yielding relatively minor gains. A Syrian military source late last month acknowledged the dramatic increase in TOW use and the impact that the system was having on the battlefield. Assad himself allegedly complained of the increased weapon supplies to his enemies.

Importantly, both the Russians and Iranians have apparently suffered losses as a result of the TOWs. After a Russian jet was shot down by Turkey in late November, reports claimed that a TOW missile brought down a Russian rescue helicopter, killing a marine on board. The Iranians have had it even worse. At least 67 of their troops, many of them senior officers from the IRGC, were killed in the first two months of the latest offensive. While most may not have died at the hands of a TOW missile, some no doubt did — including, for example, the IRGC commanding general in southern Aleppo, Masoud Akbari, whose personal vehicle was allegedly taken out by a TOW in mid-November.

It’s almost certainly true that these recent shifts in strategy won’t be decisive. They remain inadequate to the task of putting the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate to flight before Obama leaves office — which of course should be his goal.

Nevertheless, they shouldn’t be dismissed as wholly insignificant either. They begin to address many of the concerns expressed by some of Obama’s critics. The need for an intensified air war. A greater focus on destroying the Islamic State’s sources of revenue, particularly oil. Putting U.S. advisors much closer to the front lines. A growing combat role for U.S. special forces, including unleashing JSOC’s hunter-killer teams. Increased support for Kurdish fighters, especially in Syria. And, perhaps, an escalating covert war to raise the costs of Russia’s intervention, bleed Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces, and build U.S. leverage in negotiations for a political settlement in Syria.

The question remains of how serious the administration will be in implementing these efforts — and then rapidly expanding them to accelerate the dismantling of the Islamic State’s caliphate in the shortest time possible. Carter and Dunford seem to understand the urgency of the situation. Though entirely eclipsed by the Paris attacks, the U.S.-enabled liberation of Sinjar by Kurdish forces last month was an important victory. But a far more significant test will be what now happens in Ramadi. After months of delay, Iraqi security forces have entirely surrounded the city. Backed by U.S. forces and air power, they now need to drive the Islamic State out in relatively short order, inflicting a major defeat on the group in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. And then we need to move quickly to tightening the noose on the caliphate’s capital in Syria, Raqqa, exploiting our enhanced relationship with the Arab-Kurdish coalition.

If, however, come January, Ramadi remains in the Islamic State’s hands and the threat to Raqqa has not appreciably increased, we will have some pretty strong indicators that the cynics are right — that whatever changes have been undertaken are largely for show, more about countering domestic critics than destroying a foreign enemy, a senseless incrementalism designed to buy time, not achieve victory.

As always, the biggest question mark remains President Obama himself. Is he at last prepared to assume fully the mantle of a wartime commander-in-chief? Is he even capable of doing so, temperamentally? Does he have it within him to convince the country and the rest of the world that defeating the Islamic State while securing U.S. interests in the Middle East against both Russian and Iranian challenges is his highest priority — one that he’s prepared to devote the remainder of his presidency to achieving? Will he use the full powers of his office to rally NATO to join the fight against the Islamic State? To mobilize forces from our Sunni allies in the region? To engage personally with Prime Minister Nouri al-Abadi in a sustained effort to implement a new, more inclusive governing agenda in Baghdad? To engineer a set of military facts on the ground against the Russian and Iranian coalition that leaves them no other option for exiting the Syrian morass than agreeing to a political solution that ditches Assad?

If past is prologue, there’s little grounds for optimism, I admit — unless, perhaps, the White House finally wakes up to the fact that a Paris-like attack in the Homeland would very likely end up destroying Obama’s legacy. It may be that primal political instinct to avoid a catastrophic ending to his presidency that at long last concentrates Obama’s mind, creating the kind of opening in the policy process that the serious national security professionals remaining in this administration, like Carter and Dunford, can effectively exploit. The stakes are high, both for America and the civilized world, so we should pray they succeed. The amount of damage that might yet be done in the twilight of a fading presidency, strategically adrift amid the crumbling ruins of an unraveling Middle East, is almost too terrifying to contemplate.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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