More Special Forces For Iraq and Syria: Tactical Asset or Strategic Tokenism

On the surface, deploying more Special Forces to deal with the threat from ISIS to Iraq and Syria should be a tactical asset. In reality, however, it is far from clear that they will be able to perform this role – given the overall lack of a credible U.S. strategy and plans to create effective Iraqi and Syrian forces.

There is a serious risk that they will become a political tool rather than effective forces, and potentially a sacrifice pawn in a game that the Administration is not really playing to win.

The Role and Potential Value of the New U.S. “Expeditionary Targeting Force”

Secretary Carter announced in his testimony to the House Armed Service Committee on December 1st that he was sending at least 100 more U.S. Special Forces to Iraq, including support personnel, in addition to the “up to 50” announced earlier for support of the Kurdish and Arab rebel forces in Syria.

An article in the New York Times by Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt dated December 2nd, notes that Carter called this a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” to carry out raids against high-value Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria, and suggests the force will be drawn from the Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC.

Colonel Steven H. Warren, the official spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad followed up in a press conference from Baghdad the next day. He noted that the new force would add roughly 100 more personnel to the 3,550 U.S. personnel officially reported to be in Iraq. He also provided an extensive clarification of the mission, size, and tactical role of the force that is critical to understanding its purpose and prospects for success.

The key excerpts from Colonel Warren’s briefing and the press questions that followed are:

“Yesterday, Secretary Carter outlined a plan to deploy an expeditionary targeting force to assist the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga to put even more pressure on ISIL…As he said, these special operators will be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders… we've talked extensively with the prime minister about this. It's something that we exchange information with the prime minister over for the last several weeks. And, you know, and it's important to note inside of that statement, the prime minister kind of lays out the framework for what this is.

You know, and there's a couple of I think notable items in that, in that, you know, everything we, you know, that this ETF will be here at the invitation of the Iraqi government. And their operations will be conducted in consultation with the Iraqi government, that the operations will be partnered with Iraqi security forces, and that they'll really help to strengthen the border, right? I mean, a lot of this is about strengthening that border, shoring up the -- the border between Iraq and Syria.

And then finally, and I think it's also important that, which isn't in the statement, but, you know, this -- this partnership and this ETF and the partnered operations are really going to help bring up the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces as well.

…. I'm not going to go into exact numbers. I can tell you it will be -- it will be, you know, probably around 100, maybe a little bit less. In fact, really fewer actually trigger-pullers, if you will, actual real commandos. It's really going to be a majority of support personnel, everything from, you know, aviators to collectors. So actual, you know, forces who will do offensive or kinetic operations, it's a very small number, a double-digit number.

…this ETF, this expeditionary targeting force will conduct raids…but their presence in these -- a lot of these raids, which will normally be focused on high-value individuals, high-value targets are really what's going to contribute to strengthening the border there, reducing that porousness -- because that's a lot of times who's either directing the cross-border operations or who's physically going across the borders.

So make no mistake about it, these forces, along with their Iraqi partners that they'll conduct their operations with and always in consultation with the Iraqi government, will be conducting raids.

You know, I guess I'd have to ask what your definition of mission creep is. It's not really a doctrinal phrase. We see this as conducting operations to defeat ISIL. That's our mission -- our mission: defeat ISIL. So no, this is not mission creep.

…it's our preference to capture in all cases. We prefer to capture because that allows us to collect some intelligence and to gain additional information and insights into our enemy's operations. The operations that we conduct in Iraq, of course, is under the authority of the Iraqi government where they are -- certainly have the authority to capture personnel inside of their own country.

… In Syria, the operation -- you know, we've already seen one such operation. This was when we conducted an operation with the intent to capture Abu Sayyaf. He was killed in that operation, although we did -- we were able to capture his spouse, who was very much a part of the -- of the ISIL organization. So these will be conducted under those exact same authorities… we won't go into the details, frankly, because I think that would compromise some of the -- some of our capabilities. But in a similar way, again, I think a good model for operations in Syria is the operation we've already conducted in Syria, which was, you know, first to stage outside of Syria, enter Syria, conducted an operation, exited Syria back to Iraq…

… a raid is a combat operation. There is no way around that. So, yeah, more Americans will be coming here to Iraq, and some of them will be conducting raids inside of both Iraq and Syria… (as for “boots on the ground,”) I'm not going to speak for the president, but what I'll tell you is, you know, there is no -- and I think I've gone through this before, I mean, what we're talking about here is, you know, ground formations, right? Combat formations.

We're not talking about, you know, 2003, the thunder run from Kuwait up to Baghdad. That's ground combat with armor and artillery and combined armed operations and death and destruction everywhere you look…This is something completely different. These are raids, these are a small number of highly skilled commandos conducting very precise, very limited operations in a spot, and then the doctrinal definition of a raid is they then come away from that spot, right? So they enter an objective area, they conduct their operation and they exit the objective area. That's a raid, that is not a major ground combat operation. So there is a difference.

… let's let them get on the ground first and determine what their operational tempo is going to be, which will then drive what type of, you know, what type of transportation requirements they need.

They will arrive -- when they arrive, they will have everything they need to conduct the operations that they need to conduct, whether they bring it with them or it's provided by -- by personnel and equipment that's already here. They'll have everything they need.

…we see this as conducting operations to defeat ISIL. That’s our mission: Defeat ISIL.”

Secretary Carter had noted earlier in his testimony that,

…we’re improving our capability to eliminate ISIL’s leadership, by conducting raids using the expeditionary target force I discussed a moment ago and also targeted airstrikes. Since I last appeared before this committee in June, we have removed some key ISIL figures from the battlefield – Hajji Mutaz, ISIL’s second in command; Junaid Hussein, a key external operative actively plotting against our service members; “Jihadi John,” an ISIL executioner; and Abu Nabil, ISIL’s leader in Libya. Like previous actions, these strikes serve notice to ISIL that no target is beyond our reach.

The Risks: Strategic Tokenism

These words make the expeditionary targeting force seem like a useful, but limited tactical asset in the right strategic context. The problem is that the expeditionary targeting force can easily become a waste of U.S. blood and money in the wrong strategic context. Like stepping up the number of coalition air sorties, however, it also risks being one more step in a process of strategic incrementalism where the Obama Administration reacts to every new problem with ISIS by making a limited increase in military force that is too little and too late.

The Department of Defense has provided considerable data on the new U.S. expeditionary targeting force, but virtually no meaningful data on its success in creating effective Iraqi forces or Syrian Arab forces that will focus on ISIS rather than Assad. There is no meaningful official reporting on the progress in creating effective Iraqi government forces, the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi Army to date, the success or failure of efforts to create Arab Sunni forces, and the strengths and weaknesses of Iraqi Kurdish forces.

There have been endless briefings that provide vague reasons for the delays in liberating significant parts of Iraq, but no meaningful net assessments of what is happening and when – or if – Iraq will have a ground component strong enough to matter, and some capability to liberate without destroying the population centers it liberates or creating major new problems as largely Shi’ite forces occupy Sunni areas.

These same official briefings and statements have danced around the long delays in Iraqi government offensives, the growing uncertainties regarding the Abadi government, the role of Iran, Iraqi perceptions that the United States is not serious and may even be secretly aiding ISIS, the cumulate impact of the air campaign, the problems raised by Kurdish territorial gains at the expense of Arabs, and the uncertain role of Shi’ite militias and the PMF, tensions with the Turks, and the fact most of our Arab allies focus on Assad and Yemen rather than ISIS.

So far, no official statement or report has indicated the there is a credible plan or mix of U.S., Arab, and Turkish efforts or that it can create a meaningful rebel force in Syria to deal with ISIS – or the Assad forces. Colonel Warren talked on December 2nd about Arab “democratic forces” as if all of the rebels were somehow democratic, with numbers of 5,000 soon and 15,000 someday. The Kurds were left out, and no mention was made of the role of Turkey or the fact that our Arab allies are backing what seems to be a different mix of forces, while significant private money still goes to ISIS and to non-democratic Arab forces like the al Nusra Front.

Strategy does not consist of stating intentions or broad concepts. It consists of realistic plans, justified actions, and the necessary resources. At present, the United States still is not officially sending the right kind of train and assist personnel forward to help Iraqi forces become combat effective, rather than regroup in the rear. It seems focused on the Kurds in Syria with no real plan for Arab forces. It focuses on sortie numbers, and vague “body” counts of targets damaged and destroyed in the air with no clear picture of what the air campaign is seeking to do or its impact on ISIS.

A Bright Shiny Toy?

It is particularly striking that the New York Times article mentioned earlier provides the following description of the President’s decision-making process in deciding to create and send in an expeditionary targeting force,

The White House and Pentagon are under increasing pressure to show that the United States is taking more concrete steps to combat the Islamic State. In a reflection of that pressure, Mr. Carter surprised several of his top aides by inserting the plan for the additional commandos into his prepared testimony the night before Tuesday’s hearing, even though it had not been fully developed.

It was his bright, shiny toy,” said one senior Pentagon official, noting it was the kind of initiative President Obama has demanded from his national security team.

Now military planners at the Joint Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C., and in Washington are scrambling to catch up with their boss’s unexpected announcement, and fill in details of the bare-bones proposal, such as what happens to any detainees American commandos seize in the raids.

For Mr. Obama, who has been loath to send more troops to the region after more than a decade of war, the insertion of the commandos represents an effort to intensify the war effort without committing a large American fighting force like, say, a division of ground combat troops. Defense officials said the new special operators would work with Kurdish and Iraqi troops in Iraq, and possibly Syrian and Arab troops during targeted raids in Syria. So the administration is taking smaller steps to increase pressure on the Islamic State without fundamentally appearing to alter its cautious strategy.

If this reporting is accurate, it means the most the President will do is push the problem into his successor’s lap, or rely more on ISIS self-destructing from its own internal tensions than the campaign against it, and some political miracle limiting the revenge and sectarian and ethnic tensions and conflicts that follow. Rather than making the increased airpower and the train and assist mission in either country effective, it will add a few flashy Special Forces raids to an effort that has already cost over $5 billion – effectively raising the media profile of whack-a-mole with no clear strategic outcome.

Worse, it means deploying the kind of Special Forces that are all too easy to use as political tools to gain political and media visibility at a risk to the forces involved. Special Forces are exceptional, but they are not super soldiers. Things often do go wrong, and particularly if someone uses them in ways that involve crisis-driven sudden actions or to gain political visibility. They are not “bright shiny toys.” They are forces that must only be risked in a broader strategic context where the risks and sacrifices have clear necessity and a clear prospect of success.

More detailed studies of U.S. forces and strategy in Iraq and Syria can be found on the CSIS web site at:

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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