American and Kurdish special forces recently raided a building in Iraq where the Islamic State group was holding about 70 hostages it had threatened to execute. American Delta Force commandos took the kidnappers by surprise and completed their mission to free the hostages. In a previous raid last May in the village of al-Amar in eastern Syria, Delta commandos killed Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS commander, along with several other ISIS operatives. Following a brief firefight the commando force was exfiltrated via helicopter and flown to a base in Iraq.
These operations are directly in line with U.S. President Barack Obama's preferred method of applying force — pinpoint attacks with drones and special forces, while avoiding at all costs the use of ground forces on a large scale. Along with the aforementioned Delta operations, we can count Operation Neptune Spear in Pakistan, during which U.S. Navy Seals killed al-Qaida leader Osama Bin-Laden; the rescue of hostages in Somalia; and pinpoint assassinations with drones in Yemen.
In September, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford was appointed chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford began his career as an infantry officer, and he earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" when he led the Marines' 5th Regimental Combat Team during the 2003 Iraq invasion. His appointment could signal a return of regional ground operations against ISIS.
Budding signs of this possible policy shift could be found in Dunford's most recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, when he said it was certainly possible the U.S. could deploy ground troops to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers against ISIS. Dunford, however, said he would only recommend such a measure if it were to have a "strategic influence" on the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reiterated this approach when he informed the Senate of increased U.S. military activity against ISIS. According to the White House, some 50 special forces commandos will be deployed to help the rebels fighting ISIS in Syria. These soldiers will coordinate efforts between local militias and the U.S.-led international coalition. Additionally, a reinforcement of America's air fleet operating out of İncirlik, Turkey, is also in the works.
The hesitation within the U.S. military's high command is understandable, because in a war such as this there are no magic solutions. Initiating a large ground maneuver could spell success on the battlefield; as such a force would pose a counterweight to ISIS in Iraq. The ground maneuver, however, as we learned during our Operation Protective Edge, is only the beginning. The forces, from the moment they enter the fray, become vulnerable to roadside bombs, sniper fire, anti-tank missiles and mortars. All these threats are familiar to American troops from their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, in the words of one former IDF general, you can't see the movie without paying for the ticket.
During the Cold War, NATO officers would tell an old joke about a meeting between two Soviet tank commanders after conquering Paris at the end of World War III. "By the way," one commander asks his comrade, "who won the air war?" Wars, as insinuated by the joke, are won on the ground. Devoid of an aggressive approach toward ISIS, as exemplified by the Marines' 2010 assault on the town of Marja in Afghanistan, the group will inevitably continue to grow.
(The article was published in "israelhayom", November 8, 2015)