Pentagon lashes out at ISIS war "micromanagement" at WH

Victory has a thousand fathers, John F. Kennedy once said in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs disaster, but defeat is an orphan. One can usually tell how well an enterprise is succeeding by the amount of finger-pointing that accompanies it — for instance, the blame game going on already in the midterm elections. Unfortunately for the US, JFK’s adage applies more directly to a real issue of victory or defeat, and the attempt to orphan the results comes from the top, according to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast:

Top military leaders in the Pentagon and in the field are growing increasingly frustrated by the tight constraints the White House has placed on the plans to fight ISIS and train a new Syrian rebel army.

As the American-led battle against ISIS stretches into its fourth month, the generals and Pentagon officials leading the air campaign and preparing to train Syrian rebels are working under strict White House orders to keep the war contained within policy limits. The National Security Council has given precise instructions on which rebels can be engaged, who can be trained, and what exactly those fighters will do when they return to Syria. Most of the rebels to be trained by the U.S. will never be sent to fight against ISIS.

Making matters worse, military officers and civilian Pentagon leaders tell The Daily Beast, is the ISIS war’s decision-making process, run by National Security Advisor Susan Rice. It’s been manic and obsessed with the tiniest of details. Officials talk of sudden and frequent meetings of the National Security Council and the so-called “Principals Committee” of top defense, intelligence, and foreign policy officials (an NSC and three PCs in one week this month); a barrage of questions from the NSC to the agencies that create mountains of paperwork for overworked staffers; and NSC insistence on deciding minor issues even at the operational level.

“We are getting a lot of micromanagement from the White House. Basic decisions that should take hours are taking days sometimes,” one senior defense official told The Daily Beast.

As Lake and Rogin point out, this tension hasn’t been a closely-held secret. Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Martin Dempsey has publicly chafed at the “no ground troops ever” policy from Barack Obama, and recently told PBS Frontline that he’s not an optimist about the chances of success from the current policy. Until recently, though, the issues were policy-based, and not operational. Rogin and Lake make clear that the problem for the generals extends beyond the limitations of the “no ground troops ever” edict and to the daily ability to carry out the mission that Obama has tasked for them.

In this telling, the biggest problem is Susan Rice, who has no experience at all in military operations, and not much more in counterterrorism before moving to a position within the Obama administration that didn’t require Senate confirmation. Her main accomplishment prior to this was mouthing the talking points provided to her after the Benghazi attack, apparently with little curiosity as to whether they were accurate, in place of Hillary Clinton on Sunday talk shows in the immediate aftermath. How that qualifies her to run a military operation is something of a mystery. Shouldn’t that be handled by Chuck Hagel, who is the actual Secretary of Defense?

Hagel, as it turns out, has his issues with Rice and the White House too:

Mr. Hagel has a different problem. A respected former senator, like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel says little in policy meetings and has largely ceded the stage to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who officials said has won the confidence of Mr. Obama with his recommendations of military action against the Islamic State.

Defenders of Mr. Hagel attribute his reticence in meetings to fears that the details will leak into the news media, and say he is more vocal in one-on-one sessions with the president. They also insist that he is more assertive on policy than his reputation suggests, citing a sharply critical two-page memo that he sent to Ms. Rice last week, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad.

The New York Times also wonders who’s actually in charge of the national-security effort — Rice, Hagel, or Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough:

That Mr. McDonough would get involved in such an arcane matter puzzles some legislative aides on Capitol Hill, given the other demands on his time. But it testifies to how Mr. Obama tends to hand delicate assignments to his most trusted advisers. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel, meanwhile, are struggling to penetrate the tightly knit circle around the president and carve out a place in the administration. …

Nobody on Mr. Obama’s staff has genuine czar status, though Mr. McDonough comes closest. He has been equally immersed in domestic policy and in politics, but he has played a far more active role in national security than previous chiefs of staff have. Before taking on the C.I.A. report, for example, he flew to Berlin to heal a rift with Germany over the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr. McDonough’s broad portfolio, officials said, has posed a particular challenge to Ms. Rice, a blunt-spoken former United Nations ambassador who also has close ties to the president. She coordinated the debate over how to handle the C.I.A. report and the repercussions from the N.S.A.’s surveillance, though she did her part to aggravate those tensions in a bitter exchange with her German counterpart.

Regardless of who’s in charge, the policy is failing. The Washington Post reports that the airstrikes are not only having little impact on ISIS militarily, they’re not slowing down recruitment either:

More than 1,000 foreign fighters are streaming into Syria each month, a rate that has so far been unchanged by airstrikes against the Islamic State and efforts by other countries to stem the flow of departures, according to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

The magnitude of the ongoing migration suggests that the U.S.-led air campaign has neither deterred significant numbers of militants from traveling to the region nor triggered such outrage that even more are flocking to the fight because of American intervention.

“The flow of fighters making their way to Syria remains constant, so the overall number continues to rise,” a U.S. intelligence official said. U.S. officials cautioned, however, that there is a lag in the intelligence being examined by the CIA and other spy agencies, meaning it could be weeks before a change becomes apparent.

The trend line established over the past year would mean that the total number of foreign fighters in Syria exceeds 16,000, and the pace eclipses that of any comparable conflict in recent decades, including the 1980s war in Afghanistan.

That comparison is interesting. The Soviets had an occupying army in Afghanistan, which fueled the rebellion and gave the US an opening to push the Soviet system to collapse. That experience, as well as our own entry into Afghanistan and Iraq twenty years later, gave rise to the argument that foreign troops created insurgencies and fed into their recruitment. In Iraq and Syria, however, we have no ground troops to secure territory and push the militants off of land they control, and recruitment is apparently off the charts. Perhaps that assumption about the nature of terrorist recruitment should be revisited.

The entire strategy against ISIS should be revisited, as well as the leadership structure that is tasked with implementing it. We have political operatives in charge of a military/diplomatic operation while the top officials in both arenas are apparently being frozen out. That’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s no surprise at all that disaster is all that the Obama administration has managed to produce in the region.