U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter seems to get the reality that the so-called “coalition” of 66 countries that are supposedly fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a sham. Most of these countries are contributing nothing to the fight and many that once did have ceased doing so. This week, he will attempt to do something about it, which could also signal a much needed-shift in America’s ISIS strategy.
Carter has jetted off to Brussels, with the Pentagon’s updated war plan in his briefcase, in a huge attempt to get serious buy-in for a revitalized anti-ISIS strategy from key players. These include defense secretaries of NATO members, Iraq, and the Sunni-led Persian Gulf states.
The Air Force Times reports Carter even alluded to the dreaded “boots on the ground” when referencing his plan:
“What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan ... If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said last week. And then he will run through a list of military capabilities — “boots on the ground, airplanes in the air,” plus trainers and other support personnel — that will be needed to achieve victory.
“And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,’” he said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”
The mention of “boots on the ground” and a clearer set of objectives is something the White House had previously avoided seemingly at all costs. Still, it remains unclear how the U.S. will lead such an effort without committing more ground forces to the fight, and that may be what Carter is about to argue in favor of.
A Strategy That Failed Before It Even Began
President Obama’s strategy in Iraq and Syria has been seemingly more about running out the clock on his last term than about actually defeating ISIS. Dozens of daily air strikes executed under very tight rules of engagement have been at best a form of chemotherapy that has kept the ISIS cancer from growing locally, but now the Islamic State’s ideology is metastasizing in other parts of the planet like Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Sinai Peninsula and central Africa. In fact, even as Obama has claimed that ISIS is contained, his own generals have stated the exact opposite.
The strategy itself, one based primarily on medium-altitude air strikes, had nearly no chance of success from the outset. It was one based on a deep misunderstanding of the application of air power and its limitations. It was also extremely late to develop and excruciatingly slow to roll-out compared to past air campaigns that saw hundreds of targets being hit in its opening days, instead of just a handful. This gave ISIS the time to adapt to precision air power, and today, after tens of thousands of bombs dropped, there are as many ISIS militants on the battlefield as there were when the first bomb was dropped.
Now, ISIS does pose a threat to the U.S. and our allies. They are the wealthiest terror organization the world has ever known and they have high ambitions when it comes to attacking targets outside the borders of their so-called caliphate.
Officials at the highest level of the U.S. intelligence services have come out and said they are expecting an attack on American soil from ISIS this year. We have already seen them at work in Europe, Africa and the at least inspiring attacks in the U.S. It is likely that we have also seen them bring down an airliner, Metrojet Flight 9268, over the Sinai Peninsula. The group has most likely already used chemical weapons and could be developing more potent forms of WMDs.
But what is most concerning is their massive appeal and effective recruitment capabilities using social media and the Internet. This strong digital outreach capability has allowed the Islamic State to recruit across a broad spectrum, including individuals intelligence officials say hold western passports.
The fact that ISIS has lost relatively little territory in Iraq but gained territory in parts of Syria and abroad, even while being supposedly pummeled by the most advanced air power available, has been the group’s most effective recruiting tool. Just holding on while the might of the U.S. and its allies tries to unseat you from the air is considered a massive win among jihadists. The only way to truly degrade the popularity of ISIS is to take territory from it in an aggressive and persistent manner, nullifying their divine claim as a modern day caliphate that spans from the Mediterranean to nearly the Persian Gulf.
Even the air power that is already flying over both Iraq and Syria is being highly restricted due to some of the toughest rules of engagement ever. This, along with the lack of forward air controllers on the front lines, have turned the air campaign into a war on jet fuel, and aircrews are as frustrated as anyone else with the situation.
On the ground, the initial plan to train and equip moderate Sunni Arab forces fighting the Assad regime was laughable to begin with. The Obama Administration was never able to clearly identify who exactly was reliable enough to potentially be turned into a capable anti-Assadist force so late in the Syrian civil war. But just how big a failure it ended up actually becoming marked a low-point in the use of American military power as means to shape the geopolitical balance in a particular region.
Furthermore, since Russia’s grand leap into the the Syrian civil war, the idea of removing Assad militarily using proxies has become a non-starter, and Assad, backed by Russian air power, is now on the offensive in the western half of the country.
Meanwhile, the coalition of 66 countries actively participating in the fight against ISIS has become an outright farce. Just a handful of nations, pretty much all of which are NATO members or close allies, are actually flying missions over Iraq and Syria, with Arab participation all but having evaporated long ago after a high-profile start. For instance, less than 10 percent of air strikes in Syria have come from non-U.S. assets.
It is a harsh reality the White House has been unwilling to come to terms with, at least until now, which Carter could be aiming to change in a big way.
Rebuilding The Coalition
Carter foreshadowed his frustrations a week ago when he referred to the cooperative elements fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria as a “so-called coalition.” He continued, saying that “we need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the [Persian] Gulf states... Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions.”
And ground forces, at least special forces with embedded Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACS), forward air controllers on the ground that call out targets for attack aircraft, is precisely what this conflict needs. These assets, backed by indigenous fighting forces, along with Sunni Arab peacekeepers to hold retaken territory once it has been won back, is the best way to push ISIS back into Syria and eventually eliminate them as a standing military force altogether.
This strategy is analogous in many ways to the Afghanistan model, where small teams of special forces operators and JTACs led indigenous forces on a blitzkrieg across the country, with air power guided by JTACS on the ground being a decisive factor that devastated the Taliban. The Taliban were a much more entrenched and frankly more credible fighting force with an actual standing military capability than what ISIS represents today.
The Obama Administration has a fundamental misunderstanding of what air power alone, unaided by forward air controllers on the ground, can and cannot do. Hitting targets of opportunity from 20,000 feet under such tight rules of engagement, while looking at the ground through a metaphorical soda straw (in this case, a targeting pod’s narrow field of video feed displayed on a six by six inch screen in the cockpit of a fighter jet) is just not going to get the job done, period. Trained forward air controllers (aka JTACS) on the ground would get far more out of the air campaign we are already running yet alone a reinvigorated one.
Still, when it comes to rebooting the anti-ISIS coalition, many hurdles exist beyond presenting a promising new strategy. Some Arab gulf states may have high-end equipment, but they are not trained or equipped for this type of expeditionary mission, and the quality of their fighting forces are largely inconsistent.
The hard truth is no force is better than a clumsy one that will likely cause more problems than it solves. Additionally, if Saudi Army units were somehow routed by ISIS fighters, it would be a massive victory for the Islamic State and will be used as yet another recruitment tool. That is why simply having Saudi Arabia agree to a big troop contingent will not mean their soldiers will be fighting ISIS head-on anytime soon, if at all.
There is also the issue of the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which will not be happy with Sunni forces from countries like Saudi Arabia occupying major Iraqi cities and towns. In fact, they most likely won’t allow it at all, especially as Iraq’s Shiite majority is now fully entangled in Iran’s tentacles.
There is already one proxy war going on between the Sunni Arab gulf states and Shiite Iran, that being the civil war in Yemen. A similar war could end up embroiling Iraq if foreign Sunni troops were inserted there. This is especially volatile as Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Iran have ballooned in the country and are doing a sizable amount of the Iraqi Army’s work. With this in mind, these potential Sunni Arab ground forces, at least the occupying kind, will most likely be reserved for Syrian operations, with a greater reliance on the Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces, and for better or for worse those same Shiite militias backed by Iran, to fight and fill the vacuum left by ISIS in Iraq should they be vanquished.
The “wild card” in all this is that we still don’t know exactly what the war plan in Carter’s hands looks like. A more aggressive could be an enticing one that other countries may get behind, especially those that have stopped participating after airstrikes alone proved to have little effect. But if the plan remains one of just training and equipping indigenous forces, without at least US and allied special forces and JTACs on the front lines, it will could very well be met with little enthusiasm by potential international partners.
While the Obama administration has been quick to tout its strategy as one that will take many years to work, that is hardly a selling point for nations with shrinking defense budgets and asset pools, and historically short attention spans when it comes to taking part in international conflicts. Even the Gulf States have been hammered by crippled up cash flow due to plummeting oil prices.
Still, these Sunni states, and especially Saudi Arabia who allowed and even funded Wahhabi extremist teachings for decades in its Madrasas, needs to confront this threat that they helped create head-on. If ISIS’s uniquely hyper-brutal ideology is not defeated where it lays now, it will be coming to their own backyards in the not so distant future. And although participating militarily in a new strategy in Iraq and Syria will not be cheap, it is a far better and more affordable option than fighting such a group internally.
A New Strategy For A New Coalition
What is needed is a new strategy that has clear objectives and prioritized goals. For instance, getting ISIS out of Iraq should be the primary goal as it sits now. This is attainable and it would be a massive hit to the Islamic State’s image as a powerful and growing caliphate. Unleashing America’s special forces onto the conflict in a combat role is something most Americans support. In fact, most support any boots on the ground in an effort to eradicate ISIS.
Meanwhile, increasing pinpoint strikes against ISIS in Syria, under looser rules of engagement, while also executing increased special forces raids and bolstering indigenous forces that oppose the group would be a solid precursor for a light Syrian ground offensive that would only occur after the group is largely eradicated from Iraq.
Once ISIS is out of Iraq, coalition forces could contain them in Syria and reassess their strategy to fully remove them from the region once and for all. This would allow some time to train indigenous Syrian forces to do the heavy lifting, and Arab forces to do the peace keeping, once again with U.S. special forces being used as the tip of the spear, leveraging our air power advantage to the max.
It very well could be that special forces teams and JTACs, paired with the Syrian Kurds in the north as a fighting force and Sunni Arab armies working as peace keepers once territory is gained, could storm across Syria to the heart of ISIS power in Raqqa, just as special forces backed by the Northern Alliance did to the Taliban in Afghanistan 15 years ago.
Introducing special forces into combat operations, along with JTACs, changes the strategy from treating a chronic disease to actively eradicating it. ISIS fighters stand no chance—much like the Taliban didn’t stand a chance—against American special forces and precision air power, and if such a strategy were put into play, the overblown view of ISIS as a capable fighting force would crumble quickly and dramatically.
Some may say that the U.S. would be playing into ISIS’ hands by fighting them directly on the ground, even if only in a limited capacity, as it fulfills their twisted end-of-times vision, but it’s a flawed argument. The enemy’s beliefs, especially the ultra-extremist ideology of ISIS, should never dictate a military strategy designed to defeat it.
Now we will have to see if Secretary Carter is selling the same old set of butter knives the Obama Administration has been peddling for a year and a half now, or if they are now willing to deploy a strategy that actually has a chance of fulfilling their own stated wish to put ISIS down once and for all. It will take more than just a more diverse air combat force and extra trainers on the ground alone to get it done.
Deploying a drastically increased special forces contingent to Iraq in a direct combat role is not without risk, and it will take some additional regular troops to act strictly in support and non-combat roles to enable them, but this proven strategy offers the best balance of risk and reward considering the challenges at hand.
The Other Option
If the U.S. is not willing to get the job done right, than it should make the best out of the only other credible alternative—disengaging. If this option were chosen, America could probably goad Russia into starting bombing operations in Iraq as there is already signs that Russia may be willing to do just that and Iraq may actually invite it. This would likely result in Russia and Iran controlling both countries by proxy, but they will pay a very high price in doing so.
The U.S. has been in Iraq for 25 years, and if it’s not willing to do what it takes to win, it should walk away once and for all. The move would likely result in economic chaos for Russia as they deepen their involvement in a conflict they already cannot afford to fight properly. In the meantime America could invest in bolstering its allies in the region, protecting itself from terror at home, and containing ISIS inside the borders of Iraq and Syria.
This “let them have it” strategy would realign and refocus America’s resources in such a way that a true long-term strategy could be applied to a region that has been undeserved by one short-term vision after another.
In the end, if nothing is changed ISIS will continue to grow and its profile will continue to rise, not just in Iraq and Syria, but around the globe.
Hopefully Carter, who has done good things thus far in his time as Secretary of Defense, has sold the White House on exactly this, and a new strategy will soon emerge with substantial Arab buy-in to unleash the might and creativity of America’s special forces on ISIS.
Photo credits: ISIS flags at protest, Iraqi fighter by Humvee, and Ash Carter during hearing via AP. All others via DoD