The Pentagon has deployed military assessment teams to Saudi Arabia in advance of its training of moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State group terrorizing Syria and Iraq, but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cautioned Friday that it will take time for the effort to gel.
“We have to do it right, not fast,” said the chairman, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. “They have to have military leaders that bind them together. They have to … have a political structure into which they can hook, and therefore be responsive to. And that’s gonna take some time.”
Limited airstrikes won’t work to combat the Islamic State in Syria in the long run, military and intelligence officials told TheBlaze: For any military action to be effective, it will need to be fully vested in cutting off the Islamic State’s expansion, and that’s going to mean boots on the ground…
“The idea that we’re not committing any boots on the ground is not right,” the official said. “We will have trainers on the ground and pilots in the air that will all be at risk and frankly, nobody is certain that this limited action will be enough to stop what is happening anyway. I’m not suggesting that our leadership doesn’t realize this, but the idea that we are not going to have any casualties is wishful thinking and not accurate.”
“You certainly need to fight groups like ISIS on the ground,” [Tony Blair] said, using one of several acronyms for the group. “It is possible that those people who are there locally, who have the most immediate interest in fighting ISIS, can carry on the ground offensive against them. Look, this will evolve over time, I’m sure, and I’m sure the leadership of both the U.S. and elsewhere will make sure that whatever is necessary to defeat ISIS is done.”
He added: “We’re not re-running Iraq or Afghanistan, but I think that we’ll undoubtedly, over time, need to hit ISIS not simply through an aerial campaign, but also on the ground. The question will be whether, can those people, if they’re supported locally, can they do that job or will we have to supplement that?”
To be clear about one thing, there are already military personnel in Iraq—a number that will hit 1,600 pretty soon—many of them special operations forces. They’re there, stationed at headquarters in Erbil and Baghdad as military advisers and trainers.
When Gen. Dempsey talks about “U.S. military ground forces,” he means these guys; more specifically, he’s raising the possibility of taking them out of the rear and towards the front line where they might more actively direct military operations. The actual forces at the sharp end of the fighting, in other words what most civilians would understand by “boots on the ground,” would still be local.
That’s what Mr. Obama means, too. He has no intention of launching a major land war in Iraq and Syria using U.S. troops to do the fighting.
American mentors, deployed as teams of perhaps 12 to 15 with Iraqi army and guard units in the field, will also need to advise Iraqis on the planning and execution of the difficult battles ahead. These U.S. advisers do not need to do the fighting, but they will have to walk the key neighborhoods of Iraqi’s major Sunni cities, study the intelligence and live with the units they are helping. Up to several thousand Americans could be needed for this purpose.
Integrated campaigns against what Gen. David Petraeus used to call “industrial-scale insurgencies” are complex and difficult. They involve repeated raids against high-value targets, leadership sites, weapons caches, car bomb factories and the like, along with sophisticated intelligence work to identify key operational and financing nodes in the enemy’s organization. At some point, these campaigns also require taking down enemy strongholds city by city and neighborhood by neighborhood. Every major insurgent stronghold will have to be cleared, requiring the cordoning off of neighborhoods, searching for roadside bombs and booby traps, deploying proper numbers of well-prepared troops, preparing reaction forces (and medevac teams) to handle any ambushes and having holding forces ready to follow so that the enemy cannot return after the operation. Putting this all together in a plan that can be executed smoothly and quickly enough that insurgents do not have time to find new hiding places after being driven from their strongholds is a challenge even for U.S. forces.
The likely alternative is to risk having the Iraqi army attempt counterinsurgency via artillery barrage, “barrel bombs,” strafing of neighborhoods friendly to extremists and all the other atrocious tactics that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces employ in Syria.
The reader survey asked more than 2,200 active-duty troops this question: “In your opinion, do you think the U.S. military should send a substantial number of combat troops to Iraq to support the Iraqi security forces?” Slightly more than 70 percent responded: “No.”
“It’s their country, it’s their business. I don’t think major ‘boots on the ground’ is the right answer,” said one Army infantry officer and prior-enlisted soldier who deployed to Iraq three times. He responded to the survey and an interview request but, like several other service members in this story, asked not to be named because he is not authorized to discuss high-level military policy…
And many share the views of one Navy hospital corpsman second class at Camp Pendleton, California, who said his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on him mentally, physically and personally.
“We’re burned out,” he said.
We already know how this story ends, don’t we? A handful of advisers/soldiers grows into thousands; weapons and support for militia groups and governments that do not share our values turn on us in the end; massive, unaccountable government agencies telling the American people to look the other way while they protect us overstep their mandate; an undeclared war takes on a life of its own, demanding more blood and more treasure. Already Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno is telling reporters that the Army plans to send a division headquarters to Iraq to handle the additional American manpower there.
So for the sake of our national honor and out of respect for those who may give their life or be obligated to take life, let’s be honest now, at the beginning, about the circumstances under which those 1,700 troops are operating, even as the pseudo-debate rages in Washington. Let’s be honest about the risks being undertaken even now by our special operators, CIA paramilitary teams and the pilots that are, and undoubtedly will be, executing President Obama’s strategy as “advisers.” They are the very definition of combat troops. Their lives will be at risk and they will be in the thick of the action, giving orders or even pulling the trigger on military targets—and will certainly be targets for the enemy.
Western forces on the ground lend political coherence to the disparate local forces on the ground. They provide a shared goal, keep the local forces focused on that goal, and minimize their fighting against each other and for other goals. They are essential for constructing a replacement state authority on a nonsectarian basis, and for avoiding the risk of a failed state, as in Libya.
“If you break it, you own it.” So said Colin Powell, in what would go down as words of wisdom.
America is a sentimentally anti-imperialist country. We easily convince ourselves that it is a virtue to leave a country once we have driven its bad guys out of government. We have rarely in recent decades accepted much of our responsibility for the consequences of smashing a government.
Dempsey’s remarks aren’t so worrisome in the short run. Even if the current strategy on ISIS doesn’t work—and there’s a good chance it won’t—Obama doesn’t seem likely to take the general’s bait and step deeper into the darkness.
What’s worth a shudder is thinking about what his successor might do. Obama has said that the fight against ISIS will extend beyond his own presidency. I will probably vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (if just for the lack of anyone better), but it is worth noting that, during her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state, she sided with the generals in nearly every debate, including the one on escalation in Afghanistan. The only disagreement between them was over Libya: The generals didn’t much want to send in military forces, but she very much did. She has also criticized Obama in recent weeks over his decision not to send arms to the Syrian rebels in 2011, and she derided his cautiousness, saying, “ ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ ”—which Obama once pronounced as his prime directive in foreign policy—“is not an organizing principle.” She may be right, but it’s not a bad starting point and shouldn’t be laughed off by someone who, as a senator, voted to authorize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
And that’s most worrisome of all — the possibility that our insistence on “no boots on the ground” also offloads present risks onto the future. Relying on airstrikes alone may merely prolong a bloody and inconclusive conflict, or strengthen other actors who are just as brutal as Islamic State fighters, from the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the al-Qaeda-linked rebels of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Insisting that we’ll never commit U.S. troops to this fight plays right into every jihadist narrative, reinforcing America’s image as an arrogant but cowardly nation — happy to drop bombs from a distance but unwilling to risk the lives of our troops. Each time we reinforce that narrative, we give jihadist recruiting another big boost…
My husband’s boots, like those of so many other members of the armed forces, have already gathered too much dust in too many dangerous places, over too many years. Right now, I want those boots to stay exactly where they are: here, at home.
But I don’t want to trade the safety of U.S. troops today for the safety of our children tomorrow. If Obama’s promise of “no boots on the ground” means we’ll be fighting a war of half-measures — a war that won’t achieve our objectives and that may increase the long-term threat — I’m not sure, in the end, that it’s a promise I want him to keep.
Via the Corner.