Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the deployment of an “expeditionary targeting force” to Iraq, in order to facilitate the campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). This deployment follows the dispatch of 50 special-operations troops to Syria in late October. The Obama administration’s piecemeal response to the growing threat from ISIS demonstrates that it has neither a plausible strategy nor sufficient determination to achieve its stated goal of destroying the extremists.
This is the third time this year that the administration has responded with half-measures to a major setback in the campaign against ISIS. After the extremists captured Ramadi in May, the administration authorized the deployment of an additional 450 troops, bringing the total number in Iraq to 3,500. After its failure to train and equip a moderate opposition force in Syria, the administration announced its deployment of 50 special operators. Now, after the Paris attacks, the administration has unveiled its “expeditionary targeting force,” which will have an estimated strength of 200 troops. While President Obama insists, “We have the right strategy and we’re going to see it through,” even staunch Democrats are now questioning the administration’s commitment.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Secretary Carter and General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, demonstrated a clear understanding of what would constitute success in the campaign against the Islamic State. General Dunford explained that “the center of gravity for ISIL, in my assessment, is the existence of a caliphate.” To vindicate the claim that it is not just another insurgent group, the Islamic State must exercise control over a substantial territory and its population. What inspires tens of thousands of foreign volunteers to fight and die for ISIS is their belief that they are serving the true caliph, the rightful heir to rulership of the global Muslim community, or ummah. To destroy the caliphate, Carter said, “forces on the ground [must] expel ISIL from its territory, hold, and govern it.”
The “Expeditionary Targeting Force”
It remains unclear whether the expeditionary targeting force is entirely new, or just an extension of prior operations. Secretary Carter testified that the new force would be based in Iraq, where it would “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders.” The new force would “also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations in Syria.” To illustrate the kinds of missions the new force would have, Carter pointed to the operation in May that resulted in the death of senior ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, as well as the October raid that liberated 70 ISIS prisoners. Of course, to conduct those missions, there already had to be a special-operations presence on the ground. After the October raid, Bloomberg News reported the existence of a special-operations task force in the city of Irbil in northern Iraq “whose work is so classified its name is a state secret.” In coming days, it would be useful for the Pentagon to clarify the relationship between the Irbil task force and the new force announced by Carter.
The Syrian Arab Coalition
In his testimony, Secretary Carter also emphasized the importance of a new partnership with a group known as the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC). He expressed his hope that this group would provide the ground forces necessary to retake the ISIS capital of Raqqa in northeastern Syria, thereby beginning the process of dismantling the caliphate. Carter testified, “We hope that the Syrian Arab Coalition, as it rolls south towards Raqqa, is like a snowball that continues to gather people who are tired of ISIL’s rule, who are willing to fight ISIL, and have them join with us.” Carter reported that the coalition’s forces had recently expelled Islamic State forces from the town of al-Hawl along with 900 square kilometers of surrounding territory.
Carter’s upbeat assessment of the SAC’s prospects stands in stark contrast to a detailed report in the New York Times that described the alliance as something that exists mainly on paper. Technically, the SAC is the Arab component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a new umbrella group for the U.S.-aligned opposition. According to the Times, “10 days of interviews and front-line visits across northern Syria with many of the forces in the alliance, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, made clear that so far it exists in name only, and that the political and logistical challenges it faces are daunting.”
While the Kurdish components of the SDF have proven themselves in battle, “a commander of one Arab group lamented that while Kurdish commanders could simply order their fighters to move, he could only make suggestions and hope his men complied.” The Kurdish forces within the SDF comprise an estimated 40,000 fighters, while the SAC has only 5,000 to its name. One Pentagon official told the Times that the name of the Syrian Arab Coalition is itself “an American invention.”
At news briefings, Pentagon spokesmen have had difficulty describing the precise nature of the SAC, which came into existence only several weeks ago. In late October, Colonel Steve Warren told journalists that “the Syria coalition is a group of groups. So it’s ten, maybe twelve smaller groups of Syrian fighters who’ve been focused on fighting ISIL in the vicinity of Raqqa. And these ten to twelve groups have coalesced together in an effort to multiply their combat power.” Warren said the U.S. had exfiltrated 20 SAC leaders from Syria for a week of training, after which the U.S. delivered ammunition to SAC forces in Syria. In early November, Colonel Warren informed journalists that the SAC had captured al-Hawl, as Carter would later testify.
While details about the SAC remain uncertain, its relevance to the Pentagon’s hopes is very clear. “Our partnership with the Syrian Arabs is so vital,” Warren said, “because the Syrian Arabs really have the ability to pressure Raqqa heavily.” In contrast, it is not clear whether Kurdish forces will fight for Arab territory, or whether Arab populations would welcome a Kurdish liberation force.The Will to Win
While emphasizing piecemeal initiatives such as the expeditionary targeting force and the limited assistance provided to the new Syrian Arab Coalition, the Obama administration refuses to pursue other measures that have strong advocates on both sides of the partisan divide, such as a no-fly zone in Syria to protect civilians from Bashar al-Assad’s air force, and the expansion of the U.S. training effort in Iraq, so that advisers can accompany frontline units, rather than remaining at higher headquarters. There is also an emerging agreement that the pace of airstrikes is insufficient to inflict sufficient damage. Recently, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a “more effective coalition air campaign, with more allies’ planes, more strikes, and a broader target set.” By refusing to consider such proposals, the White House only validates the comment made by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, that “we have got to be much more aggressive” because the Islamic State is “a clear and present danger, not only to Europe, but to this country as well.”
— David Adesnik is policy director of The Foreign Policy Initiative. This piece originally ran on FPI’s website and is reprinted with permission.