October 27, 2015

Pentagon proposes American "boots on the ground" in Syria and Iraq

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (DOD photo)

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States will begin "direct action on the ground" against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces in both Iraq and Syria. The choice of words is interesting, avoiding use of the terms anathema to the Obama Administration: "combat" and "boots on the ground."

The Secretary's alliterative declaration that American forces will focus on "the three R's: Raqqah, Ramadi and raids" - is a patent admission of what most of us military and national security policy analysts have been saying for months - current U.S. policy in the fight against ISIS is not working.

The U.S.-led coalition air campaign is anemic at best - a majority of the armed sorties return to base with unexpended ordnance. The coalition pilots are hamstrung by over-restrictive rules of engagement and an unrealistic belief that air strikes can be conducted with nearly zero collateral damage. "Collateral damage" is the politically-correct term for civilian casualties.

That said, I applaud the Secretary's remarks. It appears that he now realizes that even an aggressive air campaign would have difficulty being effective without some American boots on the ground. The nature of the targets presented by ISIS are difficult to detect, isolate and validate inside of the cumbersome decision cycle - the time required for a pilot to receive authorization - to strike a target.

Use of manned armed reconnaissance and drones is drastically less effective without having trained U.S. Air Force combat controllers (called joint terminal attack controllers) or U.S. Army Special Forces teams on the ground to identify and either laser designate or electronically register GPS coordinates for the attacking aircraft.

I have recommended that we use American eyes on the ground - a few troops embedded with our Arab or Kurdish allies - to guide the airstrikes. I call this the "Afghan model" - similar in concept to using U.S. special operations personnel embedded with Afghan Northern Alliance fighters to effectively target al-Qa'idah and Taliban formations, facilities and fighters. It worked there, it could work in both Iraq and Syria. For more details on this model, I refer you an article I wrote a year ago: Airpower versus ISIS - try the Afghan model.

I further applaud the Secretary's selection of al-Raqqah and al-Ramadi as the two geographic areas of interest, especially al-Raqqah. We cannot address ISIS as two target sets, one being Iraq and the other Syria. We need to attack ISIS for what it is - one group spanning two existing countries. Of the two cities, al-Raqqah - ISIS's self-declared temporary capital city - should be the primary focus, with al-Ramadi a close second.

Before the Iraqis can mount the long-awaited and much-delayed assault on Mosul, Iraq's second largest city which fell to ISIS almost 15 months ago, they will need to secure al-Anbar province, of which al-Ramadi is the capital city. ISIS's forces in al-Anbar are only about 65 miles from Baghdad. Thus far, the Iraqis have not demonstrated the skills necessary to retake al-Ramadi, let alone Mosul. For that reason, we should concentrate of degrading ISIS in al-Raqqah first.

As for the third "R" - raids, this has been a successful tactic in Afghanistan against al-Qa'idah and the Taliban. Whether that translates to success in Iraq and Syria remains to be seen, and is not without risk or cost. According to the Secretary, "We won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against [ISIS], or conducting such missions directly whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground." I read "capable partners" to mean increased cooperation with the Kurds.

It was on one of these raids that Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a highly-decorated soldier of the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (more commonly just called "Delta"), was killed in action. He was the first American to be killed in action in Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Based on the videos of the raid I watched, I consider this an American direct action, not as the Secretary called it, "a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission."

If the United States adopts the "three R's" policy as the Secretary proposes, we should be prepared for additional casualties on all sides - increased losses for ISIS, but at the cost of higher numbers of civilian casualties, and unfortunately, the potential for American military losses. The Administration will have to convince the American public that the increased risk to our troops is worth the gain.

The situation has changed since the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq in 2011. While it is difficult politically to re-deploy American troops back into harm's way in the Middle East - boots on the ground this time - the threat from ISIS requires it.

If we are going to conduct an air campaign, we need to do it right. We spent years perfecting the tools and tactics to employ precision-guided munitions effectively from the sky - use the whole team: pilots in the air and combat controllers on the ground.