August 27, 2015

Is your government lying to you about the war against ISIS?

ISIS fighters celebrate a battlefield victory

I thought we had put this issue to rest after the inflated body counts of Vietnam. Quite possibly the Obama Administration is playing a variation of that same alternate reality game. Virtually every assessment and announcement from either the White House or the Pentagon has told us that the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is going well and that the terrorist army of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is on the defensive.

As a military analyst for CNN, I follow the fighting in Iraq and Syria closely - I monitor a variety of media from all sides. That includes not only the American press, but official Syrian, Iraqi and yes, ISIS reporting, as well as a variety of social media sites that cover all aspects of the situation in the region.

As you can imagine, there are great discrepancies in the descriptions of the same events. At times, I have shaken my head at some of the pronouncements from the Pentagon press office and even from the U.S. Central Command, the combatant command conducting the military operations.

Normally the CENTCOM reports are factual accounts of sorties flown, weapons employed and damage assessments. On the other hand, Pentagon spokesmen tend to portray the Operation Inherent Resolve as stopping ISIS's advances and forcing them into a defensive posture. There was certainly a disconnect in the reports of low sortie rates and just a few weapons actually being employed emanating from the theater versus the rosy portrayal coming out of the Pentagon.

I remember the reports of the "success" of the Iraqi Army in ejecting ISIS from the city of Tikrit, when most of the actual fighting was done by Iranian-trained and led Shi'a militias. As the Pentagon assured us that ISIS was now contained, the Islamists mounted a successful assault on the city of al-Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, located on the Euphrates River just 65 miles from Baghdad - all the while under attack from the air. This hardly fits the definition of "on the defensive."

Obviously there is a problem here - either the intelligence community can't figure out what is going on with ISIS or someone is misleading the public. Having spent a career in the intelligence business - most of it in the Middle East - I am opting for the latter.

In any case, the Department of Defense inspector general (IG) has opened an investigation. Unfortunately, from the wording of the available reporting it appears that the focus is going to be on professional military officers at CENTCOM rather than the political appointees (that means dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters) at the Pentagon. Guess who is going to be thrown under the bus....

It is obvious that someone is taking the intelligence reporting and putting the best face on it. Actually, that is too kind - someone is cooking the intelligence to make it fit into the narrative dictated by the White House and the political leadership at the Pentagon.

The anemic air campaign - just 20 strikes today - is having an effect, to be sure, but the Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that ISIS is about as strong and capable today as it was when the air campaign began over a year ago. Much of that is due to the easy access to Syria via Turkey for supplies and the thousands of volunteers wishing to join ISIS. Hopefully Turkey's recent decision to participate in the U.S.-led coalition will staunch that flow.

I suspect that at each intermediate echelon between CENTCOM's forward headquarters in Qatar and the Pentagon, the intelligence and operational assessments of the military campaign against ISIS change slightly for the better. Everyone wants to cast the operation in a favorable light - accentuate the positive, downplay the negative. When it gets to the politicos at the Pentagon, I suspect it is tailored to fit the narrative emanating from the White House press room.

I applaud the Defense Department's decision to launch an IG investigation - it is easily warranted. The IG is supposed to be an independent investigative agency that deals in facts and lets the evidence guide the investigation. Pardon me if I am not filled with confidence - some colonel at CENTCOM will take the fall.

Is our government lying to us? I fear that it is.

August 25, 2015

U.S. and Turkey to launch "comprehensive" operation against ISIS

Turkish Air Force F-16 fighters

The Turkish foreign minister announced that Turkey and the United States will soon commence what he called "comprehensive" air operations to force fighters of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) from a security zone to be established in northern Syria.

The establishment of this security zone has been a longstanding Turkish requirement for its cooperation in the fight against ISIS, and was no doubt a condition in the recent agreement by which American forces can conduct operations from three Turkish air bases just north of the Syria's border with Turkey. U.S. Air Force F-16's deployed to Incirlik Air Base near Adana have already conducted airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq. Armed Predator drones are also being flown from the base.

Turkish participation in the fight against ISIS is welcome, and according to some analysts (including me), long overdue. Turkey has been the primary conduit for thousands of foreign fighters to enter Syria and join ISIS. ISIS still controls a portion of the Syrian border with Turkey north of Aleppo. It is this area that the Turks want to declare a security zone. The Turks hope that the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees will return to this area and alleviate the huge burden on Turkish social services.

Declaring a security zone and establishing it are two different things. As can be seen on the map, the area designated as the security zone - a 50 mile stretch of land along the Turkish-Syrian border - is firmly under control of ISIS.

Given the generally anemic air campaign conducted over the past year, it is doubtful that even with Turkish Air Force participation air power alone will clear ISIS fighters from the area. At some point, some ground force is going to have to move into the area and occupy the territory.

This is a key piece of territory - again, it is the only remaining portion of the Turkish border that is still controlled by ISIS. Cutting ISIS's access to the border - now easily traversed despite the large presence of Turkish troops - will staunch the flow of arms and recruits to the Islamist group. Without this portal to Turkey, logistics support and manpower replacements become exponentially more difficult, as does the sale and transport of black market oil to unscrupulous Turkish dealers.

According to the announcement by the Turkish official, American and Turkish aircraft will provide air support for a force of "moderate Syrian rebels" who will remove ISIS forces from the area. This is laughable - thus far the United States has only trained somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 "moderate Syrian rebels" willing to forego their main objective of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and confront ISIS on behalf of the United States.

These few untested troops constitute our "boots on the ground." Add to this the fact that many of the initial group of 60 have been killed or co-opted by the Jabhat al-Nusrah, the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria. Pitiful. To think they are going to remove ISIS from this rather large area is fantasy.

There are Kurds in the area willing to be the proverbial "boots on the ground" - in fact, they have functioned in that role in the areas to the east of the erstwhile security zone. The successful defense of Kobani with Kurdish forces on the ground and substantial American airpower shows how effective this match-up can be. The Turks have vetoed any Kurdish participation, fearing that Kurdish control of almost the entire border area will lead to either Kurdish autonomy or an effort to establish an independent Kurdish homeland.

As a CNN military analyst, I was interviewed about this subject. American and Turkish aircraft acting in concert can bring enormous firepower to the fight. However, someone is going to have to remove ISIS fighters - firmly ensconced in the area. The force of a handful of "moderate Syrian rebels" are not up to the task. I asked then, and I ask now, who is going to do it?

I fear that without the Kurds as our "boots on the ground," we will employ massive amounts of airpower and still not dislodge ISIS from the area. It is as if we are setting this up for failure. The Turks are going to have to either let the Kurds participate or they will have to introduce Turkish troops to confront ISIS.

More half measures - when are we going to get serious?

August 9, 2015

US Air Force F-16's finally deploy to Turkish air base

U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters deployed to Incirlik AB, Turkey (USAF photo)

It has taken a long time, but the first six F-16 fighters of what I hope will be a sizable contingent of American combat aircraft arrived at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey today. The base is just 60 miles from the Syrian border and from front line positions of the so-called Islamic State, or what is usually referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Here is the public announcement from the United States European Command (EUCOM) that accompanied the above photo:

Earlier today, the United States Air Force deployed a small detachment of six F-16 ‪‎Fighting Falcons‬, support equipment, and about 300 personnel to Incirlik Air Base - Turkey in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

The detachment is from the 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano Air Base, Italy. This follows Turkey's decision to host the deployment of U.S. aircraft conducting counter-ISIL operations. The United States and Turkey, as members of the 60-plus nation coalition, are committed to the fight against ISIL in the pursuit of peace and stability in the region.

F-16 forces arrive at Incirlik Air Base

Here's a small clip of the F-16s landing today!In support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Incirlik Air Base received six F-16 Fighting Falcons from Aviano Air Base, Italy, support equipment and approximately 300 personnel Aug. 9, 2015, here. #airpower #Incirlik #F16 #flyfightwin U.S. Embassy Ankara, TURKEY U.S. European Command (EUCOM) United States Air Force U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa

Posted by Incirlik Air Base - Turkey on Sunday, August 9, 2015

I have been encouraging the Department of Defense for over a year to deploy American combat aircraft to Turkish air bases - and chastising our Turkish NATO allies for not allowing it sooner. The Turks changed their minds two weeks ago. See my article on that, Turks to allow coalition access to Turkish air base - finally (July 23, 2015).

If we want to take the fight to ISIS's self-proclaimed capital and its main strongholds in northern Syria, Turkey's air bases are well positioned for air operations. Pilots can now fly to their targets from bases only 75 to 200 miles away, rather than the long flights from Gulf bases or Jordan at least 800 miles away. Reaction time to emerging targets or critical situations can now be measured in minutes rather than hours.

While we all welcome the Turkish government's decision to allow American forces to use Incirlik, and we applaud the EUCOM decision to finally deploy six fighters, there are some concerns and questions still unanswered.

I note in the photograph that that F-16's deployed with the full range of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. I hope this means that these aircraft will be used, and used quickly, for strikes on ISIS targets in Syria. If they are there as some sort of quick reaction force to be used only in cases of emergency, or limited by Turkish authorities on what targets can be engaged, then it is a waste of an effective combat asset.

Now that we have "bomb-droppers" close to ISIS positions, are we finally ready to step up the up-to-now anemic pace of air operations? With F-16's at Incirlik, supported by aerial refueling tankers, we can put aircraft with full weapons loads and full fuel tanks over northern Syria at will. That, of course, requires the political will to use the combat power now just 60 miles north of the target area.

There are also four Predator reconnaissance drones and two armed Predator strike drones at Incirlik. I hope that the drones and F-16s will be used together - find the targets and destroy them immediately. This will require adjustments to the cumbersome, self-defeating rules of engagement currently in place.

This is a deployment of six F-16's - with a lot of media releases by EUCOM. While the F-16 is an extremely capable fourth-generation fighter aircraft, six aircraft will not to change the situation. Normally the U.S. Air Force deploys in squadron strength - 24 aircraft. I hope to see follow-on deployments to bring the American contingent at Incirlik up to wing strength - at least two squadrons. The initial deployment may be limited by the Turks or by logistics considerations.

Now that the Turks granted American access to the base, will the Turks participate in strikes against ISIS? It appears to many of us that the Turks are more concerned about airstrikes on Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) targets than hitting ISIS targets. That may have been the price for American access to Incirlik.

Bottom line: This is a welcome deployment - it could set the stage for drastic improvements to the thus-far mediocre air campaign. If we are going to take the fight to ISIS, Incirlik is a good venue to do just that. Bring in more combat aircraft - F-15E, A-10, AC-130, etc. Then unleash the pilots from the White House-dictated obstructive ROE.

ISIS has yet to meet real airpower - now would be a good time to introduce them to it.

August 8, 2015

The Christie - Paul clash: some clarification for the Senator

Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul

For the most part, I try to avoid politics in this forum, and I will try to do so here - I am not advocating for or against any candidate in the Republican race.

At the August 6 debate the topic of privacy and the collection of what Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky believes is protected information was raised. The senator was challenged on his views by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

On this particular topic, Governor Christie seems to understand the issue and the danger posed by well-meaning critics of bulk meta data collection. That is what the two candidates were arguing, although neither of them clarified it sufficiently. Had Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper been a bit more articulate in the Senate hearings on this topic in 2013, this might not be an issue today.

The director needed to distinguish between storage of meta data versus the intelligence exploitation of that data. He failed to do so, leaving the senators with the impression that intelligence analysts are poring through Americans' phone calls.

Meta data is the term used to describe information about communications rather than the content of those communications - we old-timers in the signals intelligence business used to call these data "message externals." Using phone calls as the example, it would be information such as time of call, length of call, originating number and receiving number - basically the information on your telephone bill or online via your cell phone provider. You have heard references to "LUDs" (local usage details) on police shows - this is meta data.

In the world of domestic law enforcement, a court order is required to have a telephone company provide this information to the police. There must be a reason for that request, made to a judge who then authorizes the police to acquire the meta data on a particular phone line. In the era of online phone calls (like voice over internet protocol, VOIP) and services such as Skype, it becomes a bit more difficult, but the data is there if you know how to access it (we do).

This is predicated on the availability of the data, the meta data that is maintained by the phone providers. It is how they bill consumers. At one point, this information was also being provided to the intelligence community - specifically the National Security Agency (NSA) - and stored. Commercial communications companies cannot be expected to store meta data indefinitely. Here is the key point - the data was stored in massive servers to be available to intelligence analysts if it was ever needed.

Perhaps a scenario would be helpful - this particular scenario is loosely based on actual events.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan is called to a meeting with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. The ISI officer provides the station chief a stack of materials seized in an ISI raid of an al-Qa'idah safehouse in Quetta, a city near the border with Afghanistan. In that stack of materials are several laptop computers and a few cellphones.

The materials are forwarded to CIA headquarters where all the information is downloaded from each of the devices. Key intelligence information can be found in the call logs on the phones, as well as the email addresses in the laptops. The phone numbers are important in determining who else is involved in this particular al-Qa'idah cell. Several of the numbers are located in the United States.

In order to fully exploit this information, NSA officers, operating under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - more commonly known by its acronym FISA - warrant, access the stored meta data to determine not only who is associated with the phone numbers recovered from the seized laptops and cellphones, but also what numbers were called from those phones, and further what numbers were called from that second set of phone numbers.

This is called network analysis, and is critical in determining al-Qa'idah members (or other group) or sympathizers present in the United States. Again, this is predicated on the availability of historic meta data - it is essential that analysts be able to "go back in time" to uncover these contacts. Only when there is such a requirement is the meta data accessed, and then only with a warrant. Intelligence analysts are not sifting through meta data on a routine basis - imagine the volume of data on the servers.

Senator Paul and others believe that intelligence community storage of this meta data is an invasion of privacy and illegal under the Constitution. They often say that if there is suspicion that someone is involved in illicit or terrorist activities, law enforcement agencies should obtain a warrant and then proceed to monitor the communications of that individual.

That sounds good, but to adequately and effectively analyze these terrorist organizations, you need historical data. Whenever there is an arrest of a key individual or a takedown of a cell in a terrorist or criminal organization, one of the first things these groups do is completely change their communications methods. The phone number on a newly issued wiretap warrant will likely be dead before the ink is dry on the warrant. We need access to the historical meta data to determine the extent of the network.

This access is a key analytical tool in the war on terrorism. Well-intentioned officials like the senator have passed legislation that restricts the intelligence community's storage of this information. The next time there is an attack on the United States, these same people will be blaming the same intelligence community whose hands they have tied. Senator Paul wants the intelligence community to connect the dots - the analysts must first have the dots to connect. Meta data are dots....

Sorry, Senator Paul. Governor Christie gets it - you don't.