March 2, 2016

Delta versus ISIS - American special operations forces expand their mission in Iraq

According to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, soldiers from the U.S. Army's Delta force have detained a major operative of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (more commonly referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in the last few days.

The Secretary had announced earlier that U.S. special operations forces (of which Delta is a key member) will be expanding operations in Iraq and Syria, a prelude to the long-awaited (and long-promised) campaign to retake the city of Mosul. Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, was seized by ISIS after a short fight in June of 2014 in which the Iraqi Army virtually collapsed in the face of the Islamist fighters.

The Secretary's remarks were amplified by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford, "Operations against Mosul have already started. We're isolating Mosul, even as we speak. The same thing with Raqqah."

The Chairman is no doubt referring to successful Syrian Democratic Forces - an alliance between Sunni Arab Syrians and Syrian Kurdish peshmerga forces - and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga units cutting vital supply lines in both Syria and Iraq between ISIS's declared capital of al-Raqqah and Mosul.

Secretary Carter's and General Dunford's words are welcome, but also point to a lingering belief that the Iraqi armed forces are incapable of removing ISIS from Mosul without substantial U.S. assistance. It was always assumed that American airpower would play a major role in any Iraqi ground operation in Mosul, but the expanded role of the U.S. special operations forces is an added capability to develop the intelligence required for the retaking of the city.

The new mission - capturing ISIS leaders for the purpose of obtaining intelligence information - represents a departure from previous tactics. In the past, special operations forces were deployed to conduct hostage rescue operations or to kill selected ISIS figures when it was not possible to do so via aircraft or drone strikes.

The Obama Administration's realization that there is significant intelligence to be gained via the capture and interrogation of ISIS leaders - rather than just killing them - was a result of a Delta force raid into western Syria in May 2015 in which ISIS gas and oil chief known as Abu Sayyaf was killed.

Abu Sayyaf's wife, known as Umm Sayyaf, was taken prisoner and through interrogations became a gold mine of useful intelligence. Subsequent successful airstrikes against ISIS's illicit oil operations and a key ISIS finance center in Mosul were a direct result of the interrogations of Umm Sayyaf.

It was that intelligence success which led to the creation of the Expeditionary Targeting Force, the name applied to the current effort. In any case, it has been a long time coming. Killing ISIS leaders when you have the change to take them alive is counterproductive. It would appear that the recent Delta detention of an ISIS operative is part of that realization.

In today's warfare, especially in these asymmetric fights, intelligence drives operations. More correctly, timely and accurate intelligence drives effective operations. Hopefully, this new effort will yield that timely and accurate intelligence.