What Can 200 U.S. Commandos Actually Accomplish in Iraq?
Much less than the White House wants.
A deadly U.S. special operations raid on a top Islamic State commander last May that swept up a trove of intelligence has become the gold standard for how the Obama administration envisions the secretive war against the militants. But the White House may be overburdening the limited number of American commandos on the ground with unrealistic expectations of turning the tide in Iraq and Syria.
Fewer than 200 U.S. special operations forces make up the Pentagon’s much-touted “expeditionary targeting force” that recently arrived in Iraq to take the fight to the militants, but only a few dozen will take part in raids, according to U.S. officials. An even smaller team — about 50 special operators — has deployed to Syria.
The Pentagon rarely discusses the secretive missions of U.S. commandos that the Obama administration calls a crucial part of its bid to “intensify” the war against the Islamic State. Yet in announcing their deployment to Congress, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the elite American troops will “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture” Islamic State leaders in both Iraq and Syria.
Their deployment “puts everyone on notice in Syria: You don’t know at night who’s going to be coming in through the window,” Carter said Dec. 1.
During the night-shrouded raid in eastern Syria last May, U.S. Delta Force troops killed Islamic State financial guru Abu Sayyaf and as many as 11 of his henchmen after a short firefight. They also captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf, and loaded computer hard drives and stacks of financial documents from his compound into their Black Hawk helicopters before flying back across the border to Iraq.
Over the following days, the records revealed critical details of the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure in Syria. But the real prize was Umm Sayyaf, who could provide much-needed context to the files and a living, breathing source on how the terrorist group funds its operations. Within months, acting on that information, airstrikes began targeting Islamic State oil operations across eastern Syria, depriving the militants of millions of dollars worth of revenue.
But the aftermath of the raid that nabbed Umm Sayyaf also pointed to one potential Achilles heel in Washington’s plan: the need for detention facilities. The U.S. military shuttered all of its American-run prisons in Iraq before it left at the end of 2011, and without a place to continue holding Umm Sayyaf, U.S. officials were forced to turn her over to Kurdish authorities last August.
There are no plans for American forces to reopen detention centers in Iraq, a U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy. “Interrogation details are still being worked out, but generally we’ll only observe and the Iraqis will share” information, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
That means the new U.S. counterterrorism mission in Iraq will likely miss out on collecting critical pieces of information from detainees who might be more willing to talk after weeks or months behind bars.
“If you capture high-level people, what do you do with them, and all of the information that comes from them?” said Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and co-author of Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns That Killed Bin Laden and Devastated Al-Qaeda.
“If we can create an intelligence-driven mission, that’s great,” Peritz said. “But we can’t detain anybody, and that’s the No. 1 source of information.”
Reliable information has become harder to come by with fewer U.S. forces on the ground. In Afghanistan, where the Obama administration is also leaning heavily on a small number of special forces, a tragic Oct. 3 operation in Kunduz underlined the risks of operating with incomplete intelligence.
That night, a team of U.S. Green Berets, who had spent long days fighting alongside Afghan special forces, called in an airstrike on a nearby building where Taliban extremists were believed to be hiding. But a lack of constant information sent to the AC-130 gunship overhead resulted in the air crew identifying the wrong building.
The blistering hourlong attack instead targeted a charity hospital, killing 42 medical staff and patients, and leading to accusations of war crimes. U.S. military officials are currently weighing punishments for several of the soldiers involved.
The relatively small military footprint in Iraq and Syria, down from a high of nearly 170,000 U.S. troops in Iraq during the height of the surge in 2007, has put firepower at a premium. But experts said equally as important — if not more so — are surveillance drones and intelligence gathered on the ground.
“You turn that on, and it makes a huge difference,” said retired Col. Stu Bradin, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer who helped establish the NATO Special Operations Forces Coordination Center in Afghanistan and served as director of a fusion cell there.
He said round-the-clock surveillance from the air and ground intelligence help military planners seamlessly juggle raids and other operations, while building a picture of the network of insurgents like what senior U.S. commanders painstakingly created in Iraq and Afghanistan at the height of those wars.
“Just the size of the intelligence side of the house alone is massive,” Bradin said. “You can only do some of it from a distance — you really have to have intelligence staff co-located with the operators [on the ground].”
He said it took at least three or four intelligence analysts and support staff to run a special forces operation for every one soldier on the ground.
As head of the Joint Special Operations Command, now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal transformed the way American commandos wage war. McChrystal oversaw the missions that tracked down al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and, most famously, Saddam Hussein.
During the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus created so-called fusion centers where intelligence analysts and special operations forces together pored over information to help plot the next mission.
The analysts were “critical to fusing the various pieces of intelligence as the operators picked them off the battlefield,” said Linda Robinson, an analyst at the Rand Corp., who has written several books about special forces. “They would go out and do the raid, and they would — this is very important — capture versus kill the individuals on the target and then be able to gain human intelligence from them.”
McChrystal’s collaborative approach remains a model for the ongoing missions in Iraq and Syria, several U.S. officials told FP. But now, officials noted, the effort is dramatically smaller, with dozens of commandos instead of thousands in the battle zone. And this time, U.S. commandos will be operating jointly in partnership with Kurdish and Iraqi counterparts.
President Barack Obama, who when elected pledged to end wars not start them, had long resisted sending special operations forces to Iraq or Syria. And until recently, the Obama administration relied on air power and the training of local troops for full-fledged combat against the Islamic State.
But as the U.S. military campaign came under mounting criticism, Obama reversed course — opting for a tactic honed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the Pentagon last month, Obama lauded the role of special forces in warning that Islamic State leaders “cannot hide.”
“Our next message to them is simple: You are next,” Obama said.
This month, Carter suggested more commandos may soon be headed for Iraq and Pentagon officials are pushing European allies to deploy their own commandos. “The more we use it, the more we’ll learn about additional uses for it,” Carter said of the new contingent of special operations troops. “The more we do, the more we learn what more we can do.”
But with only a handful of U.S. ground troops, and lacking consistent, reliable local partners, it’s unclear whether American special operations forces can seriously damage the Islamic State.
It will fall to Kurdish and Iraqi fighters to act on intelligence gathered by the United States. Yet U.S. officials are only cautiously optimistic about the Kurds’ ability and privately admit the Iraqi Army remains plagued by leadership and morale problems.
It’s also uncertain whether local troops will be capable of coming to the aid of American special forces who may find themselves pinned down in a fight. That was less of a concern in the past, when commanders could rely on nearby rescue units to justify taking more risks, analysts said.
Just how many operations American commandos have conducted in recent months, or exactly what they’re doing across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, is unknown. Only four missions over the past year have received any public scrutiny: the Abu Sayyaf raid, Kunduz, and two more that resulted in the deaths of Americans.
Last October, Delta Force Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed in a raid on an Islamic State prison near Hawijah, Iraq. And earlier this month, on Jan. 5, a firefight in Afghanistan’s Helmand province killed Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock, wounded two other Green Berets, and disabled an American helicopter. Early attempts to bolster U.S. troops in the Helmand firefight failed after one helicopter broke a rotor blade on landing, and another was chased away by Taliban fire. It wasn’t until hours later, after dark, that a rescue mission finally made it to the team.
That operation highlighted the dangers and difficulties special operations forces now face as they stage raids with an imperfect intelligence picture, limited air power, and a small military footprint.
Recent reports say a small contingent of American special operators has set up operations at the Rmeilan Air Base in the Syrian Kurdish region near the country’s borders with Iraq and Turkey, but U.S. officials have declined to comment. “Because of the special nature of these forces, it’s very important that we not discuss specifically where they’re located,” Col. Steve Warren, the U.S. military’s spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters. “It puts those forces at increased risk.”
Five or 10 years ago, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, commando units were operating at full throttle.
An estimated 12 special operations raids happened across Afghanistan on the same night SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. And the successful manhunt that took out Zarqawi in June 2006 came only after the United States “went after dozens of guys first to get to him,” said Peritz.
And even in an unrelenting war of that magnitude, during which a steady march of militant leaders were killed or captured, the United States still fell short of fully defeating al Qaeda in Iraq, which has since morphed into the Islamic State.
“A purely counterterrorism operation is not effective — unless you have the intel piece to back it up,” Peritz said.
Photo credit: Spc. Connor Mendez/Department of Defense
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary