December 1, 2015

U.S. to deploy "specialized expeditionary targeting force" to combat ISIS - mission creep?

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee today, announced that the United States will soon deploy what he called a "specialized expeditionary targeting force" to fight the so-called Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

According to Secretary Carter, this special operations force will "conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIS leaders." Given the description of the force, it will likely consist of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) element assigned to the the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Although American special operators have been active for some time in Iraq - and have conducted occasional raids into ISIS-controlled portions of Syria - that is not part of this new deployment. The troops already in Iraq were deployed in a "train, advise and assist" role - this new force will be organized into a combat unit and tasked with unilateral operations.

The Secretary (rightly) believes that this type of operation will create a "virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum." Some momentum to start combating ISIS on the ground would be welcome.

Although Secretary Carter was quick to point out that the force will operate at the invitation of the Iraqi government, focus on defending Iraq's borders and building the Iraqi Security Forces' capabilities, he also allowed that the new force will be authorized to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.

Although I support and applaud the Secretary's announcement today, it is not all good news. Let's take a look at the meaning behind the words.

The fact that the United States must deploy additional special forces into Iraq to defend Iraq's border and build the capabilities of the Iraqi forces is a patent admission that the Iraqi Army, security and police units are incapable of fulfilling their most basic missions.

There remains something fundamentally wrong with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi - it cannot or will not organize a force capable of defending the country, despite over a year of retraining at great expense to American taxpayers. Perhaps the Obama Administration has concluded that if we are going to accomplish the President's stated goal of "degrading and ultimately defeating" ISIS, we will have to do it ourselves rather than what I call "outsourcing" it to the Iraqis.

This deployment also signals the realization that ISIS is not contained, neither in Iraq and Syria, nor elsewhere in the region. Despite Secretary Carter's pronouncement that we are shrinking their "footprint" in Iraq and Syria and "gaining momentum," he stated that ISIS has "metastasized" to other countries. ISIS has declared "provinces" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sinai (Egypt), Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, etc.

When questioned further, the Secretary admitted that almost all of the areas in which ISIS has lost territory has been as a result of Kurdish ground operations and American airpower. The lone area in which Iraqi (Arab) forces have regained any territory was in Tikrit, which is largely in ruins. One only needs to look at the Iraqi Army's operations in Bayji and now in al-Ramadi to realize that they remain an incapable force.

There is no way to spin this deployment as anything but putting U.S. "boots on the ground." These troops are not trainers or advisers, these are special operations personnel tasked with direct action.

There is also no way to spin this as anything other than deploying American forces in a ground combat role. This indicates to me that the Administration is beginning to realize that its anemic-at-best, lip-service-at-worst air campaign has largely been ineffective.

That air campaign, also addressed by Secretary Carter, is now focusing on ISIS's financial sources, primarily the group's illicit oil sales to a variety of willing buyers, among them the Syrian regime and a host of Turkish black market brokers.

Before we attribute the focus on this new target set to the Administration, consider that intensified Russian and French airstrikes on a variety of ISIS targets, including ISIS's fleet of oil tankers, actually goaded us into action. The Russian and French airstrikes - unhampered by the overly-restrictive American rules of engagement - came as the result of ISIS's downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and the ISIS attacks in Paris.

I hope today's announcement heralds a realization in Washington that if ISIS is truly a threat to the United States and is to be destroyed - and it must be destroyed, not "contained" - it is incumbent on us to use all the elements of national power to accomplish that task. We cannot rely on others to do our fighting for us - we have tried that in the past and it does not work.

It would appear that no other country is willing to commit forces on the ground to completely eliminate ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Those in the fight on the ground now - the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish peshmerga, and the newly-organized and untested Syrian Defense Force - are not capable of accomplishing that goal.

The conundrum we face: those who are willing are not capable; those who are capable are not willing.

At some point, destroying ISIS may require a more robust commitment of American forces not only in the air, but on the ground. It is time to address the problem head-on rather than this incremental escalation that we seem to be doing.

This is becoming symptomatic of mission creep.