April 16, 2015

The ISIS attack on the Bayji oil refinery - where is the airpower?

The so-called Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), released a video that claims to chronicle its successful attack on the Bayji oil refinery in Iraq's Salah al-Din Governorate. Bayji is located on the Tigris River about 125 miles north of Baghdad, just north of the city Tikrit - it is the country's largest refinery.

The attack on the refinery comes immediately after Iraqi forces - with initial assistance from Iranian supported militias and finally from U.S.-led coalition airpower - were able to retake Tikrit from ISIS. The battle, which was touted to last just a few days, took over a month as the Iraqis and the Iranian-backed Shi'a militias found themselves in a stalemate because ISIS had effectively prepared the city for the expected offensive.

It should be noted that ISIS is simultaneously conducting an attack on al-Ramadi, the capital city of al-Anbar Governorate. Al-Ramadi is located about 65 miles west of Baghdad. (See my article from earlier this week, ISIS - making a play for al-Ramadi despite air campaign.) Despite U.S. Department of Defense claims that coalition airpower is stopping and even rolling back ISIS's advances, the group continues to mount multiple offensive operations.

This video may partially explain how that can be. It is in Arabic, but much is self-explanatory - I will provide translations of key portions. This should be watched in conjunction with a review of my earlier article, Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS? (March 8, 2015).

The video is titled "Attack of the Defiant - on the Apostates in the [Bayji] Refinery." Keep in mind that this is a production of the skilled propagandists in the Information Office of the Islamic State's Salah al-Din Governorate. It is well-produced and graphic. In addition to the message of a successful attack on what is critical infrastructure to Iraq, it also shows a level of brutality that is meant to terrify potential adversaries. It is effective.

NOTE: YouTube has deleted the video.

Some of the key points in the video:

Initially, there are preparatory fires from 122mm, 130mm and possibly 152mm artillery, as well as Katyusha rockets. The Katyusha rocket launcher is concealed in a dump truck (time 0:21/0:24/1:50). We have also seen these in the hands of Palestinians, and was probably supplied by the Iranians.

Between 0:30 and 0:50, we see ISIS drone footage of the refinery, followed by scenes from the "Islamic State Army Operations Room" - you can hear fire control orders being given.

At 2:03, there is the initial sighting of a U.S. Air Force Predator drone. At this time, there are numerous ISIS targets, primarily towed artillery pieces in static positions. The drone is seen again at 2:43.

At 4:00, the infantry assault begins. At 5:30, during this phase, a U.S. Air Force A-10 "Warthog" close air support aircraft is seen over the battlefield. By 6:30, the attack is over and numerous dead Iraqi soldiers are seen.

At 7:20, there is footage of ISIS fighters in the center of the refinery with destroyed Iraqi army equipment. At 8:05, the A-10 is again seen over the area. Later there is a burning M-1 Abrams tank, followed by Shi'a militia equipment and flag, and boxes of U.S.-manufactured ammunition. At 9:10, there is an abandoned Iraqi army T-72 tank.

At 9:20, an ISIS fighter being interviewed commented that there was no coalition airpower employed against them during the operation.

At 9:40, there is coverage of a suicide attack on retreating Iraqi troops. The suicide bomber recites his last statement, then from 10:15 to 10:35, drives the explosive laden Humvee into his target.

At 10:50, there is an abandoned, intact M-1 Abrams tank being taken over by ISIS fighters.

At 11:50, the celebrations begin - "they fled, we're here."

Multiple sightings of at least one Predator drone and an A-10 attack aircraft - both of which are ideal platforms for attacking ISIS targets - indicate that the coalition was flying over the oil refinery, yet there are no indications of attacks. The remarks by the ISIS fighter at 9:20 say it all.

What are we doing? Either let the pilots and drone operators do their jobs, or bring them home.

April 15, 2015

ISIS - making a play for al-Ramadi despite air campaign

The ISIS assault on the city of al-Ramadi

The fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are attempting to surround and seize the city of al-Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar governorate in western Iraq.

Despite the U.S.-led air campaign that began in August of last year - and Pentagon claims that the organization is in retreat - the Islamist group is still able to mount effective ground operations against Iraqi security forces and the disparate groups that are fighting the multi-faceted war in Syria.

Statistically, of course, the U.S. Department of Defense is correct - the air campaign has limited ISIS's ability to mass forces and has contributed to the Iraqi retaking of the city of Tikrit north of Baghdad. However, ISIS continues to launch new attacks on multiple fronts. The current fighting in Iraq is focused on al-Ramadi and the oil center of Bayji, located between Tikrit and Mosul. In Syria, ISIS has been able to attack the southern suburbs of Damascus.

The success of the recent attacks on al-Ramadi came as a surprise to the Iraqis - and the Americans advising them. As the Iraqis were finishing the long operation to retake Tikrit, ISIS moved forces to the south - despite the air attacks - and began an attempt to encircle the city. In just a few weeks, they were able to effectively seize areas to the north, east and south of the main part of al-Ramadi.

There are conflicting reports of ISIS breakthroughs into the main part of the city itself. According to media accounts, the defenders in the city are short of necessary supplies - food, water, weapons and ammunition. The only lines of communication open are to the west, but it is a long way to supporting Iraqi military units. Coalition aerial resupply will be critical.

These operations come at a time when Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi is visiting the United States, where he met with President Obama as well as Congressional leaders. The United States is in a dilemma. As long as ISIS remains a threat, the Obama Administration must continue to support the Iraqi military. That entails providing intelligence, logistics, training, advice and most importantly, air support to an Iraqi military that continues to perform abysmally.

In the battle to retake the city of Tikrit, the Iraqi armed forces relied primarily on Iranian-supported Shi'a militias, usually referred to as Popular Mobilization Units. The verbiage belies the reality that these militias are trained, equipped, advised - and led - by members of the generally capable Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force. The Qods Force commander, Major General Qassem Solimani, has been seen in various locations in Iraq advising/leading the Shi'a militias. Iranian media has reported the loss of dozens of IRGC officers in the fighting in Iraq, as well as in Syria.

All told, the performance of the Iraqi military is still disappointing. Even with the support of the Shi'a militias, they were unable to effectively force ISIS out of Tikrit. The Iraqis were forced to walk back the bravado of the Shi'a militias who claimed they did not need or want American help to retake the city. After weeks of being stalemated by a much smaller force in the city center, they had to ask for coalition (read: American) air support to rout out the last defenders.

As the U.S. Department of Defense reviewed the performance of the Iraqi forces - army, police and militias - it became apparent that the current capabilities are only marginally better than when American advisers were re-introduced into Iraq last year. It is no wonder that Prime Minister al-'Abadi was reluctant to request additional weapons from President Obama. Although the Iraqis need the weaponry, the United States rightfully is reticent to provide sophisticated, capable weapons to forces that abandoned much of the previously supplied materiel in the face of attacking ISIS forces last summer.

Tikrit was supposed to be the test of the revamped Iraqi military - it failed the test. There were claims by Iraqi officers that Tikrit was to be a short battle and a stepping stone on the way to the liberation of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. Mosul is ten times the size of Tikrit and presents a much more difficult military challenge. The original timetable of an attack in the spring and a battle lasting a few weeks is now just a distant memory. I doubt the Iraqi military will be capable of mounting a campaign to retake Mosul in the next six months. They are still fighting over the oil refinery in Bayji, and have yet to secure al-Ramadi.

If I were the Iraqis - and hopefully the American advisers are on the same sheet of music here - I would be focusing my efforts on al-Ramadi and securing al-Anbar province. That large western province is the location of the critical Euphrates Valley - home to many powerful Sunni tribes that must be won over to support the al-'Abadi government in Baghdad. Their support will be critical to ousting ISIS from the western part of Iraq and thus freeing the Iraqi military to shift its focus to retaking Mosul and finally ejecting ISIS from the country.

If that is possible, that will solve a good portion of the ISIS threat, but not all. We still have to deal with the situation in Syria, and the other locations into which ISIS has metastasized - Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, etc. Ignoring the problem does not solve the problem, just like leaving the battlefield in 2011 did not end the war.

Step one: go take back al-Ramadi. If the Iraqis cannot do that, we face a much bigger problem, one that will likely see Chaiman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey advise the President that the time has now come for the introduction of American combat forces on the ground in Iraq. At that point, this will not be about Iraq, it will be about a threat to the United States.

April 9, 2015

Iran continues to demonstrate its negotiating skills - Kerry beware....

One of the daily emails I receive is the AIPAC Daily News Digest. Granted, it is from a pro-Israel lobby in Washington, but it does provide a quick wrap-up of Middle East news items in one place. In today's issue, it is easy to see Iran's continuing attempts to shape the ongoing negotiations over the final form of an agreement on the scope of their nuclear program.

The Iranians are trying to force the P5+1 (read: the perceived malleable Secretary of State John Kerry) to continue to make concessions. The Iranians have assessed - correctly in my opinion - that the administration of President Barack Obama is so desperate to reach a deal with Iran that the Americans will grant even more concessions than they have done already.

Three of the first four articles in today's digest illustrate how the Iranians are laying out their additional conditions to the West, a week after both sides have come to a tentative agreement. The Iranians are telling John Kerry that if he does not agree to further concessions, he will lose the deal that has now become identified with his success or failure as the Secretary of State.

Iran senses - again correctly in my opinion - that they are bargaining from a position of strength. The people who arguably invented haggling are now taking full advantage of what they believe is weakness on the part of the American president and seemingly blind ambition on the part of John Kerry.


1. Ayatollah Khamenei calls nuclear framework agreement non-binding
In his first official remarks about the framework agreement between Iran and Western powers, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on Thursday that nothing is finalized, and therefore the understandings remain non-binding.

2. Iran rules out inspection for military sites
The Iranian defense minister made clear Wednesday that international inspectors would not be granted access to the state’s military sites under the framework agreement with the world powers on the country’s nuclear program.

4. Iran will only sign nuclear deal if sanctions lifted 'same day': Rouhani
Iran will only sign a final nuclear accord with six world powers if all sanctions imposed over its disputed atomic work are lifted on the same day, President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech on Thursday.


I will address the following remarks to Secretary Kerry (I am sure he is devout reader). Mr Kerry, the Iranians are playing you. They have assessed that you have staked your reputation and the legacy of your tenure as Secretary of State on the success of this deal, and that you are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve an agreement, almost any agreement, with them.

I urge you to focus on the long-term effects of the terms of this agreement. As it stands, it does very little to halt Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, it legitimizes their now-illegal enrichment of uranium, it will start an arms race in the region, and it will threaten the existence of a key American ally, Israel.

Read the three articles above. Do the Iranians sound like people we can trust to adhere to an agreement that is almost impossible to verify? Without unfettered and unannounced (neither of which you have secured; in fact both were part of your concessions) access to all Iran's nuclear facilities - regardless of whether or not they are located on military installations - there is no verification.

Further, the proposed deal does not address other facets of Iran's policies - support of terrorism and meddling in regional affairs (Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Yemen come to mind). These are the people who are shouting "death to America" in one meeting and who you believe are negotiating in good faith with that same America in another. Does this make sense to you?

Stop making concessions and be willing to walk away. The Iranians need this deal; we don't - perhaps you should remind your Iranian counterpart of that.

April 7, 2015

Yemen - do the Houthis want to talk?

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15S of 92 Squadron takes off for a sortie in Yemen

For the last two weeks, a Saudi-led coalition of the air forces of ten nations has pummeled targets of the Houthi group in Yemen, hoping to force the group to accept the return of elected - and deposed - President 'Abd Rabuh Mansur al-Hadi to power, or to at least establish some form of a power-sharing government. The Saudis have repeatedly asked/demanded that the Houthis enter a dialogue with the president about the future of the governance of Yemen.

The Saudis view events in Yemen as in their direct sphere of influence. As the largest, wealthiest and most powerful country on the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regards events anywhere on the peninsula as affecting its national interests. That view is especially critical with Yemen, which over the decades of the existence of the Kingdom, has often been a source of conflict. The 1960's civil war in Yemen drew in military forces from Egypt and Jordan, as well as those of Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis make up between 30 to 40 percent of the Yemeni population - accurate figures are hard to obtain. After they seized power - surprisingly easily - earlier this year, the Saudis' concern for the stability of Yemen caused them to approach the Houthis and offer to negotiate or mediate the future of the country. There was some initial hope that a diplomatic arrangement could be reached since the Houthis indicated they did not seek to govern. That hope ended when the Houthis reversed that stance and began governance of the country.

After the Houthis installed themselves as the de facto government, they refused all offers of dialogue, mediation, negotiation, etc. After the president escaped from house arrest and fled to the southern port city of Aden, the Saudis became concerned that the country was entering a new civil war, this time between the Houthis and their ally former President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih on one side, and the forces loyal to current President al-Hadi on the other.

The Houthis were very effective in routing the loyalists and forcing them to withdraw to the south. It appeared that the loyalists were on the verge of collapse, and rumors began to circulate that President al-Hadi had fled the country under cover of darkness. As to be expected, the Saudis' apprehension of instability on their southern border grew.

In the early hours of March 26, aircraft from several Arab air forces, led by the Royal Saudi Air Force, began airstrikes on Houthi targets across Yemen. The initial targets were well chosen - military installations in and around Sana', as well as high-value installations in Ta'izz and the al-'Anad air base. The al-'Anad air base was the location used by American special operations forces to conduct drone strikes against the leadership of the Yemen-based group known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), before the Americans were evacuated along with the U.S. embassy staff.

Given the target selection and the seemingly accurate strikes, it has been my assessment that much of that targeting data was provided by the United States. None of the air forces comprising the Saudi-led coalition has the intelligence, surveillance or reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to develop that comprehensive of a target list. I am not saying that the United States provided the exact target list for this particular series of attacks, but at some point in the past, as part of our military and intelligence cooperation with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab allies, had shared that information.

Although the Arab coalition was fairly accurate in its strikes, there were a large number of civilian casualties - for several reasons. First, many of the targets were located in fairly built-up urban areas. Striking these targets with large weapons resulted in a lot of collateral damage - including civilian casualties. The Arab air forces do not possess the smaller bombs used by the U.S. Air Force developed for just these types of attacks, and there may be less concern in these air forces about collateral damage. Secondly, as the airstrikes continued, the Houthi leadership moved more and more of its command and control operations into civilian residential areas, hoping to force the Arab air forces to reconsider hitting targets in these areas.

The airstrikes continued, and civilian casualties mounted. At one point, Sunni Yemenis began to complain about the casualties, accusing the attackers of killing the very citizens they were supposedly defending. The coalition scaled back its attacks, allowing the Houthis to begin a relentless and effective ground campaign, moving south in a series of assaults that has taken them all the way to the port area of Aden.

The Houthis and their allies now control most of the western area of the country - the east is still largely controlled by AQAP. In fact, AQAP, probably the major benefactor of the chaos in Yemen, is virtually unchecked in its operations. As an example, they attacked a poorly defended prison and freed hundreds of imprisoned AQAP fighters.

Despite media reporting and analysis to the contrary, there are reports that the Houthis are in fact suffering from the Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes. The objective of the "ineffective" (as described by the media) air campaign is to force the Houthis to the negotiating table where a political arrangement can be worked out that addresses Saudi Arabia's legitimate security concerns, and if possible, restore the government of President al-Hadi to some form of power-sharing or caretaker government. Note that I said "if possible" - if forced to make a choice, the Saudis will go for an agreement that addresses their national interests.

Perhaps the air campaign actually has had its intended effect and the Houthis are willing to talk about the future governance of Yemen if the Saudis halt the bombing. That said, keep in mind that the Houthi official that indicated that his group is amenable to talks is Salih 'Ali al-Samad - the same official who said months ago the Houthis had no desire to run the country.

There are also reports that the Saudis - possibly with Egyptian and Pakistani assistance - are preparing for a ground incursion into Yemen. Tanks and other military equipment are being moved to the Saudi-Yemeni border and all units are on heightened alert. I believe this to be posturing on the part of the Saudis. They have tried ground incursions into Yemen before - it has always met with only limited success.

I believe the air campaign will continue and probably intensify until the Houthis are serious about sitting down at the negotiating table. The Saudis and their coalition allies can maintain the pace of the airstrikes almost indefinitely.

April 5, 2015

The nuclear deal with Iran - the view from Riyadh

King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

It appears almost inevitable that the Obama Administration is going to push through the completion of what many to consider to be a mediocre-at-best agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program. Regardless of the hard sales pitches by both the President and Secretary of State John Kerry, the Iranians remain focused on the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. I believe they will ultimately be successful.

I am not the only one that believes that the Iranians will eventually have nuclear weapons - it already has the ballistic missiles to deliver them. One need only look to the west across the Persian Gulf to find the country (with the understandable exception of Israel) most concerned with the Iranian nuclear arms program - the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have been wary of Iran since the 1979 revolution and Tehran's desire to export that revolution throughout the region. Since 1982 when Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Syria and Lebanon contingent (forerunner of today's Qods Force) began operations in Lebanon and created Hizballah, the Iranians have been a major force in the politics of both countries.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent civil war, Iran has meddled incessantly in Iraqi politics - after the premature removal of American forces in 2011, Iran became the major power broker in the country. Some say it remains that to this day.

The recent and ongoing crisis in Yemen has Tehran's handwriting all over it. The Shi'a Houthi group is sponsored, equipped and funded by the Iranians. If you are sitting in Riyadh, you see Iran wielding significant influence in four Arab capitals - Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and now Sana'. Iran is constantly displaying new, indigenous weapons, including more capable and longer range ballistic missiles.

The Saudis have reason to worry - they, like most rational observers of Middle East events, are convinced that Iran will at some point in the next few years, possess nuclear weapons.

The Saudi concern with a potentially nuclear-armed Iran is nothing new. I wrote an article in late 2011 - The coming nuclear arms race in the Middle East (December 5, 2011). From that article:

Saudi Arabia
The former director of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service stated this week that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, then the Kingdom may be forced to as well. Although Prince Turki al-Faysal couched his remarks by first citing the world's failure to convince Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons, then casually adding "as well as Iran," his meaning was perfectly clear - if Iran develops them, we'll buy our own. Saudi Arabia is currently planning to build 16 nuclear reactors to generate electricity. The weapons program would be an easy add-on, although the Kingdom is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Saudi interest in a nuclear weapons capability is not new. In 1987, the Saudis purchased CSS-2 missiles from China; the missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Although the Saudis did not acquire that capability, they did express interest in a joint research and development program with Pakistan. If the Saudis decide to move ahead with a nuclear weapons capability, they have the requisite infrastructure already in place.

While I deplore the release of classified documents by the Wikileaks crowd, some of the information is interesting. Here is an excerpt from a February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the Secretary of State. (10RIYADH178, SCENESETTER FOR SECRETARY CLINTON'S FEB 15-16 VISIT TO SAUDI ARABIA, classified SECRET NOFORN. Read the entire cable here.)

9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help. The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

10. (S/NF) The King is convinced that current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed; he is likely to feel grimly vindicated in his view by Ahmadinejad's February 11 boast that having successfully enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent, Iran "is now a nuclear nation." The King told General Jones that Iranian internal turmoil presented an opportunity to weaken the regime -- which he encouraged -- but he also urged that this be done covertly and stressed that public statements in support of the reformers were counterproductive. The King assesses that sanctions could help weaken the government, but only if they are strong and sustained. The King will want you to elaborate on the President's statement that the time for sanctions has come. He will also want to hear our plans for bolstering Gulf defenses vis-a-vis Iran. (The King has invited General Petraeus to his desert camp for discussion on this topic on Tuesday.)


Although some of the situation in the Middle East has changed since I wrote that, such as the hope that Syria could be part of a counter to Iran and the fact that there is a new king in Saudi Arabia, the rest still holds true. I assess that new Saudi King Salman has already given the orders to the new Minister of Defense and Aviation (his son), to scope out what it would take to acquire at least the same capability as Iran.

Of course, by doing so the Saudis may run afoul of the Obama Administration. However, the Administration has proven that they are willing to allow other countries to enrich uranium in contravention of international agreements with little consequence.

If you are living in the Persian Gulf region, the overly optimistic assurances from President Obama and Secretary Kerry that their agreement with Iran will prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability ring hollow.

If I was King Salman, I would do the same thing.

March 28, 2015

Bergdahl - the deflective media campaign begins

Still images from a Taliban video of Bergdahl's release

It has not taken any time at all for a campaign to be mounted in support of accused U.S. Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl. It ranges from sympathetic media outlets to his high-powered defense attorney and even a few misguided online support groups.

The motivations for the campaign range from typical lawyer tactics to anti-military sentiments, usually from people who do not understand military service and its unique demands.

Bergdahl at Fort Sam Houston (San Antonio, TX) in 2014

My views on Bergdahl are clear (see my earlier article, Bergdahl - the Army does the right thing). I believe he deserted his post and should be held accountable - let him have his day in court. It appears that he is one step closer to that possibility as the U.S. Army has charged him with desertion and misbehavior in front of the enemy - both serious charges.

There is an Article 32 hearing scheduled for April 22. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, this hearing is similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding. The convening officer may refer the case to a general court-martial or dismiss the charges. I hope that the U.S. Army will continue to do the right thing as a result of that hearing, which in my opinion is to convene a general court-martial.

I also hope that the Administration will not put pressure on the Army to dismiss the case in the wake of the White House's two public relations blunders - the Rose Garden ceremony with the President and Bergdahl's parents, followed by National Security Advisor Susan Rice's blatantly false claim that Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction."

On CNN* this morning, I was asked my analysis of the claim made by Bergdahl that he had left his unit so he could report "a breakdown in discipline and order" to senior military officials and did not intend to desert. I wanted to ask CNN anchor Alison Kosik, "Where do I start?"

I enjoy fiction but it has to be good fiction - this does not meet that standard. I have to assume that this claim is part of the legal advice that Bergdahl is receiving from well-known civilian defense attorney Eugene Fidell.

Fidell is well-regarded in military justice circles, and he will do his best to defend his client - I hope that stops short of suborning perjury. His claims that there is a "tidal wave of hostility from the right" toward Bergdahl is just more of his part of the media campaign drumbeat....

First, there is an established chain of command that provides for soldiers to raise the issues Bergdahl claims he was attempting to report. That is best done at an installation to which Bergdahl had access periodically, not by deserting a forward outpost in the middle of the night in search of another unit.

Second, if he was truly looking for another U.S. Army outpost, he would have retained his body armor, night-vision googles and most importantly, his weapons. It is inconceivable to me that he chose to leave his post unarmed in the middle of an area known to be active with Taliban fighters on this mythical quest to report problems in his unit.

We can expect more of the deflection campaign. However, I am not buying it.

* Disclosure: I am a paid military analyst for CNN.

March 25, 2015

Bergdahl - the Army does the right thing

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (here as a Private First Class)

It has taken too long, but finally we have criminal charges filed against U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Today Bergdahl's lawyer was provided documents charging the former Taliban captive with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. I will let the lawyers discuss the actual charges - I will limit my remarks to the fact that charges have been proffered.

The Army, no doubt following instructions that likely emanated from the White House, only today announced what it had decided months ago. The delay in making the charges public stems from the mishandling of the Bergdahl case since the Administration made the decision - ill-advised in my opinion - to exchange five senior Taliban officials being held at the detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, in return for an American soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan in June 2009.

Despite the delay, there is no chance of distancing the White House from what can only be described as gaffes. First and foremost was the spectacle of President Obama hosting Bergdahl's parents in a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the release of five of the most senior Taliban detainees in U.S. custody for the return of their son. The President's remarks seemed to paint Bergdahl as a hero rather than a soldier suspected of desertion. It is inconceivable that the President, the Commander in Chief, was unaware of the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance from his unit at a forward outpost in Afghanistan.

President Obama with Bergdahl's parents at the White House

When it became obvious the American public did not support the Administration's decision to release five dangerous terrorists for what many observers believe is a deserter, the White House sent National Security Advisor Susan Rice out on the talk show circuit to make their case.

Rice's infamous quote will no doubt be replayed juxtaposed with an Army colonel reading the charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
- Rice: "He served the United States with honor and distinction...."
- Colonel John King: "The U.S. Army Forces Command...formally charged Sergeant Bergdahl with desertion ... and misbehavior in front of the enemy...."

Perhaps the Administration should limit Ambassador Rice's public appearances - add this to her assertions that the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi was in reaction to a video, and claims that Turkey had decided to allow coalition use of their airbases for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq - both proven to be false. Combined with the almost surreal Rose Garden ceremony, it is understandable why the White House wanted to delay this announcement of the decision to charge Bergdahl with desertion.

Soon after the news broke that the Army was pressing charges against Bergdahl, Bergdahl's lawyer released a statement purportedly from Bergdahl himself detailing the conditions of his captivity at the hands of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. There is neither doubt nor argument that Bergdahl suffered terribly during his five year ordeal.

It was an ordeal of his own making, however. In June 2009, Bergdahl walked off his post after detailing in writing his intentions to leave. These writings, as well as emails with his father, will be used as strong evidence against him.

I applaud the U.S. Army decision to move forward with this case and charge Bergdahl. Despite the suffering he endured, that was after he had made the decision to desert his comrades in arms.

When Bergdahl walked off his post, he committed the worst crime in the profession of arms - leaving his fellow troops. Those same troops then had to place themselves in the dangerous situation of halting ongoing operations to begin an intense search effort. There are claims, which the Administration denies, that several soldiers were killed in an unnecessary search operation triggered by Bergdahl's decision to leave his post.

Whatever the outcome of the court-martial - if there is one - the Army owes it to all of its soldiers to hold its troops accountable for their actions. Bowe Bergdahl will have his day in court to tell his side of the story. Soldiers hold their own to high standards - they will determine if Bergdahl failed to meet those standards.

My compliments to the U.S. Army leadership for doing the right thing.
See my previous writings on the Bergdahl case:
- The Bowe Bergdahl exchange - a mixed blessing (June 2014)
- Military chiefs support the release of the "Taliban Five" for Sergeant Bergdahl - well, sort of.... (July 2014)

March 17, 2015

Fallout of a bad nuclear deal with Iran

Fallout of a nuclear-armed Iran?

Recent polls taken in the United States indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans - between 70 and 80 percent - do not believe that the proposed agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1* (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) will prevent Iran from eventually acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Despite Presidential spokesperson Josh Earnest's claims to the contrary, few people believe President Obama "is driving a hard bargain."

The proposed agreement will provide Iran immediate sanctions relief, permit them to legally enrich uranium to the five percent level, and lift all restrictions on Iran's nuclear program after a ten year period of compliance. To most observers (including this one), that sounds like a great deal for Iran, and a bad deal for the rest of the world - not exactly the result of a "hard bargain."

The Administration realizes that neither the majority of the American people nor the Congress support the "hard bargain" the President's team is negotiating with Iran. Continuing in the vernacular, most Americans believe that instead of a "hard bargain," the President is "giving away the farm."

I believe that lack of popular support is the reason why the United States and some of its European allies are beginning talks in the United Nations (UN) to forge a Security Council resolution to remove UN sanctions on Iran if a nuclear deal is reached. The Administration, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, is trying to circumvent Congress and in effect the American people to make a deal with Iran. Perhaps the State Department deputy spokesperson was right in her condescension - we American people just don't understand the "nuances" of these negotiations.

I have been forthright and forceful in my condemnation of what I believe is an unwise agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although the President has "convinced" (read: directed) his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Jim Clapper to omit references to Iran (as well as its proxy in Lebanon - Hizballah) from the latest annual threat assessment delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism.

Coincidence? I have known General Jim Clapper for four decades - he does not often make errors of omission. This was a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from Iran at a time when the Administration is desperate to reach a deal, any deal, with the mullahs in Tehran. (Read DNI Clapper's statement.)

As I said, I have written on this topic on numerous occasions. The Administration's desire to appease the Iranians is not new. Here are a few of my previous articles, in chronological order, and a quote from each:

Off to the races - Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear energy (April 17, 2010). Quote: "Saudi Arabia is looking across the Persian Gulf at what is likely the world's next nuclear-armed nation. The Saudis, long-time American allies, are unsure of the direction of American foreign policy in the region and probably think they may need something to counter Iran's accession as a regional power. A Saudi nuclear energy research and development center is the logical answer - after all, that's how Iran's program got started."

Mr President - take a lesson from the UAE ambassador (July 7, 2010). Quote: "Here is where [the UAE ambassador] gets even clearer: 'We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. The United States may be able to live with it; we can't.' If the United States will not fulfill its traditional leadership role in the region - which includes protection for the Gulf Arab states - these states will be forced to either make an accommodation with Iran, or in the case of larger countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, acquire their own nuclear arsenal."

"Fallout" from the Iranian nuclear program (August 28, 2010). Quote: "As Iran continues to develop its nuclear programs - power and weapons - it is only logical for other nations in the region to do the same. It is just a matter of time before we see more nuclear-armed states in this volatile region. This is the 'fallout' of Tehran's program."

The coming nuclear arms race in the Middle East (December 5, 2011). Quote: "The King told [National Security Advisor] General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia. The King is convinced that current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed."

The "fallout" of a bad deal, or possibly any deal short of Iran scrapping its nuclear program, is the triggering of an arms race in the region. The major countries in the region - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey - two Arab and all three Sunni Muslim - are not going to sit idly while Iran develops the capability to develop nuclear weapons to mount atop its huge arsenal of ballistic missiles. The three powers are wary of a Persian, Shi'a state sponsor of terrorism armed with nuclear weapons.

This deal, a bad one in my judgment, does nothing to assuage those fears.
* The P5+1 group comprises the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) plus Germany.

March 15, 2015

Anatomy of an ISIS suicide attack on an Iraqi target

ISIS suicide attack in al-Ramadi, Iraq

The following series of photographs are from an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attack on an Iraqi police SWAT headquarters in al-Ramadi, Iraq, mounted on Friday, March 13. These photographs were posted on several ISIS-affiliated Twitter and Facebook pages.

The post details a well-planned and executed attack on what ISIS describes as an Iraqi SWAT headquarters. It was one of many attacks launched by ISIS over the last week in al-Ramadi in a possible attempt to divert Iraqi military and police resources from the fighting in Tikrit. Dozens of suicide attackers have sacrificed their lives in the last few days.

The target of the attack was a tall building located on al-Mustawda' Street in the Andulus section of al-Ramadi, across the street from the al-Maqbulah mosque. The mosque is the building with the blue dome in the above photograph.

In this satellite image, the mosque is in yellow and the target building in the red box. The first attack - the diversion - came from the east along the street just north of the mosque, with the two main attacks coming up the main road from the south.

The attack

I will not dignify this attack by using the attackers' names, only their nationalities.

The first suicide attacker, probably an Algerian, sets off in the direction of the target. He will be heading for the barricade on the east side of the street north of the mosque.

The second attacker in a homemade armored truck packed with explosives is moving from the south on al-Mustawda' Street toward the barricade blocking the street to open the way for the third attacker who is behind him.

The second attacker, a Syrian, in his explosive-laden vehicle.

The second attacker has opened the way and is headed for the second line of defense.

The second attacker crashed through the second line of defense, while to the left, the first attacker moves into his position. Smoke from gunfire is visible as the Iraqi SWAT members attempt to stop the attackers.

The third attacker, a Jordanian, drives his explosive laden red truck into the breach created by the second attacker.

An Iraqi SWAT member (in left red box) hits on the third attacker's vehicle with a rocket.

The first attacker detonates his explosives.

The second attacker detonates his explosives.

The third attacker detonates his explosives.

The aftermath

The building is completely destroyed. The Iraqi press has reported the attack but have not released the number of casualties.

These attacks are devastating, hard to defend against, and indicate the level of commitment of the recruits ISIS is able to attract.

March 10, 2015

"Military Rules Handcuffing Pilots, Blocking U.S. Air Power from Decimating ISIS" - General Dave Deptula Inteview

Lieutenant General David Deptula

I first met Dave Deptula in 1990 on a U.S. Central Command aircraft flying from Washington, DC to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was a lieutenant colonel assigned to assist Brigadier General Buster Glosson in developing the air campaign that eventually crippled the Iraqis in the operation that led to the liberation of Kuwait.

I was a major, assigned as General Schwarzkopf's Arabic language interpreter and adviser on Iraq - we were on our way back from briefing President George H.W. Bush on the options available to take the battle to the Iraqis.

On the long flight to Riyadh, we talked for hours about American capabilities, Iraqi defenses, and the personalities of many of the Iraqi generals I had met during an assignment in Baghdad working with the Iraqis against the Iranians; I was the officer tasked with passing U.S. intelligence information to the Iraqis.

Even then, it was evident that this was an officer who "gets it."

I wrote an article on my personal website, Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS?

The article received a lot of attention - I received many requests for interviews. Since I have contractual obligations to CNN, I referred the requesters to General Deptula.

When I think "airpower" - I think Dave. He graciously consented to this interview.

Radio America

U.S. air power is making progress but not achieving nearly as much as it could in the battle against the Islamic State because American pilots or forced to go through a long bureaucratic chain before receiving permission to attack obvious targets such as convoys and atrocities being committed in real time.

Rules of engagement have long been a point of frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the restrictions placed on pilots are getting renewed attention following a Sunday blog post by retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a former intelligence officer who is now a commentator for CNN.

In the post, Francona quotes a pilot using the pseudonym of “Chris.”

“The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy and politics is appalling. Pilots have no decision making authority in the cockpit. Unless a general can look at a video from an ISR sensor, we cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent hours watching a screen in my cockpit as ISIS commits atrocities, but I cannot do anything. The fear of making a mistake is now the hallmark of American military leadership,” said the pilot.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula says that analysis is spot on. (Listen to the interview) Deptula served 35 years in uniform and held command positions in Operation Northern Watch in Iraq in the late 1990s. He also played key roles in orchestrating the air campaign against the Taliban in 2001 and spearheaded the response to the devastating South Asian tsunami.

When it comes to the fight against the Islamic State, Deptula says our air campaign is having noticeable results but it’s only a fraction of what is possible.

“While what’s going on has been very very effective and air power has halted the further movement of ISIL, we could be so much more effective is we actually put together a coherent, comprehensive air campaign,” said Deptula.

The first problem, he says, is the limited amount of activity in the air campaign.

“We have to apply air power like a thunderstorm, not like a drizzle. So far, we’ve been applying it like a drizzle,” he said.

Deptula says the difference between the air campaign in the Gulf War versus the current operation could not be more different. In the 43 days of Operation Desert Storm, he says there were 1,100 attack sorties and a total of 3,000 air sorties per day.

“The average since the 22nd of September of 2014 in Syria has been less than a handful, on the order of 5-10 strike sorties a day. To date, we’ve accomplished about 2,700 attacks since September. If you put that in Desert Storm terms, that’s about two days worth of attacks,” said Deptula.

While the circumstances may be different between the two conflicts, so is the mindset of U.S. military planners. Deptula says American leaders are terrified of making a mistake.

“There appears to be a disproportionate focus on the objectives being to completely avoid any collateral damage to the exclusion of inflicting the greatest amount of impact on the adversary,” said Deptula.

The main frustration for pilots is that while they are authorized to carry out their pre-planned missions, they are not permitted to exercise their own judgment if they spot an enemy convoy or even witness the Islamic State committing barbaric acts against innocent victims.

Just as “Chris” noted in Col. Francona’s blog, Deptula says there is a maddening and time consuming chain of command that pilots must follow.

“That pilot has to make a request to a tactical operations center, who then has to approve or discern that there are no possibilities for collateral damage or friendly fire in the area. Then they have to pass that request to higher headquarters, who then has to sign off on it,” said Deptula.

Deptula says the bureaucracy sometimes goes further than that and opportunities to attack are frequently squandered.

“In some cases, depending on if you’re in Syria or in Iraq, then there are other officers from other nations that get involved in the approval process. So just from what I’ve been telling you, you can see we’re not talking about a matter of seconds or minutes. In some cases it may be as long as hours or it may not happen at all,” he said.

When it comes to civilian casualties, Deptula says there is often confusion about whether laws or the military’s rules are at issue He says the facts are quite clear.

“The laws of international armed conflict understand that warfare is ugly and that casualties will occur. But there’s a big difference between causality of casualties and the responsibility for who accomplishes that,” said Deptula.

The general says if civilians die because they’re used as human shields by the Islamic State, the responsibility for the deaths belongs with the enemy.

“There is this misplaced concern about creating negative impressions in the media that can be used against those who are actually applying force,” said Deptula.

“The sad part of all of this is that adversaries like ISIL, if they are co-mingling with civilians, in accordance with the laws of modern conflict, they are the ones responsible for any casualties, not those applying the force in a legal fashion against the adversary,” he added.

Deptula says the effort to avoid civilian casualties at any cost actually winds up getting more people killed.

“If we get over-consumed with casualties and collateral damage avoidance, that is going to lengthen the campaign and ultimately increase overall civilian casualties. The best way to minimize casualties is to conduct a swift, rapid and focused operation to eliminate ISIL,” said Deptula.

For Deptula, the solution is simple: trust the pilots.

“You need to delegate execution authority and engagement authority to the individual who has the greatest situational awareness at the time, and that’s the pilot who can clearly see and discern what is going on,” said Deptula.

This is not just military theory for Deptula. He says that strategy was very effective while he served as Joint Task Force Commander during Operation Northern Watch, a mission enforcing no-fly zones in Iraq in 1998 and 1999.

“Instead of having my pilots have to ask, ‘Mother, may I?’ for engagement authority, I delegated to them engagement authority based within the context of the pre-brief rules and the degree of certainty of what they were engaging,” said Deptula.

How much of a difference would we see in the fight against the Islamic State if pilots had engagement authority? Deptula says it would be instant and obvious.

“You’d see the difference immediately and it’d make a big difference, because now you’re not missing valid, legitimate and timely targets that have been missed because of an excessive vetting process and an over-subscription to a focus on casualty avoidance as opposed to mission accomplishment,” said Deptula.