A new strategy against ISIS/ By Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

His special forces teams increased their operational tempo to such an extent that they carried out 300 raids per month, dismantling al-Qaida cells one after the other

In US President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress he described Islamic State (ISIS) as a “network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, and women, and children of all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from this planet.”

Trump is not the first to view an organization of Islamic extremist, Salafist jihadists as a network. One of the first to do so was retired US Army general Stanley McChrystal. In his book The Insurgents (Simon and Schuster, 2013), Fred Kaplan describes McChrystal as a special operations expert. “He entered the force as a parachutist in the 82nd Airborne, then rose through the ranks in Ranger and special forces units, climaxing in the fall of 2003, when he took control of the Joint Special Operations Command.” According to Kaplan’s book, “McChrystal saw that al Qaeda was a network, each cell’s powers multiplied by its ties with other cells. It would take a network to fight a network, so McChrystal built one of his own.” Under his leadership JSOC’s network worked. His special forces teams increased their operational tempo to such an extent that they carried out 300 raids per month, dismantling al-Qaida cells one after the other.

On January 2017 President Trump ordered the new US defense secretary, USMC Gen. (ret.) James Mattis, to conduct a 30-day review of US strategy on ISIS. Mattis is supposed to get back to the president with a full range of options to fight that threat. The previous administration chose a counter-terrorism strategy that refrained from using “boots on the ground.” Instead president Barack Obama preferred surgical strikes using drones and special forces, while avoiding at all costs the use of ground forces on a large scale. That was the strategy that led to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen by a US drone strike and Operation Neptune Spear in Pakistan, during which SEAL Team Six killed Osama bin-Laden. The latter was led by McChrystal’s successor at JSOC, Adm. William McRaven, himself a former Navy SEAL.

In addition the US adopted a policy of “leading from behind” – providing support through intelligence, air power and special forces to the campaign waged by local ground forces. This was the case Libya and now in the war against ISIS. That’s understandable given the fact that in a war such as this there are no magic solutions. One knows where it starts but not how or when it ends. Usually it turns to a bloody and prolonged war. The ground maneuver, as shown during Operation Protective Edge, is only the beginning: the forces become vulnerable to IEDs, snipers, anti-tank missiles and mortars. Threats familiar to US troops from their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Secretary Mattis is a combat veteran who knows the Middle East and Iraq in particular, having fought there more than once. He led the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, in the Gulf War, commanded a Navy-Marine task force in Afghanistan, and the entire 1st Marine Division during the march on Baghdad and the battle for Falluja. He understands better than most the danger in sending troops into, as former secretary of state Gen. (ret.) Colin Powell described in an article, “a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish.” 

However that policy didn’t prove as useful in the fight against ISIS. Deploying ground forces is not without cost, but on the other hand is highly effective when it comes to hurting and defeating the enemy. That was, for example, the case in Operation Cast Lead, during which the IDF’s 35th Paratroopers Brigade, led by Col. Herzi Halevi, operated in the midst of the Gaza Strip, killed Hamas militants, destroyed the enemy’s arsenal and effectively prevented rockets from being launched at Israel’s cities.

“I’m in the business of providing the president with options,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USMC Gen. Joseph Dunford recently, in regard to the forming of a new strategy against ISIS. Dunford, who served under Mattis in Iraq as the commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, revealed that there are currently around 500 US special forces soldiers in Syria, working with Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces in their efforts to strike the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, in what he called “about as complex an environment as you can be [in].”

Though it’s not likely that the new strategy will include the use of large-scale ground forces, given the background of Secretary Mattis and CJCS Dunford, one can assume that they understand the need for a growing presence of US troops on the ground.

That presence will probably will be reflected in increased activity of special forces, mainly from JSOC. The current commander of JSOC is Gen. Austin Miller, who just like McChrystal began his career as a paratroopers officer (82nd Airborne Division), served in the Rangers and commanded a contingent of Delta Force operators in the Battle of Mogadishu (and was awarded the Bronze Star). The most significant operation so far carried out the during his term as commander of JSOC is the raid carried out by the Navy SEALs on an al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) headquarters in Yemen. The operation, the first commando raid authorized by Trump, turned into a shootout in the midst of the village because the force was compromised before hitting its objective. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed and three others were wounded. 14 AQAP fighters were killed in the raid, some of whom were also terrorist network leaders and facilitators.

In his resent speech to Congress President Trump led a standing ovation for the Owens’s widow. Trump assured her that according to Secretary Mattis, her husband “was a part of a highly successful raid.” In the movie Annapolis, Lieutenant Cole (played by Tyrese Gibson), the company commander and a tough Marine, presents the cadets with a body bag and demands they “remember what that bag looks like with a body in it, because if you become officers this is where they’re going to put your mistakes.” That rule, that is very familiar to generals, applies to leaders of state as well, and should be taken to into account prior to approving the new strategy against ISIS.

The author is the coordinator of the Military and Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the founder and operator of the blog “In the Crosshairs” on military, security vision, strategy and practice.

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", March 7, 2017)

President-elect Trump – the ‘West Wing’ lesson/ by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

During the time left before he takes office, President-elect Trump should conduct an in-depth study of the many responsibilities that await him

In a speech given last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (USMC General Joseph Dunford) addressed the true weight of estimates and assumptions. Dunford told the audience about task force “Smith” (TFS), an infantry battalion of the 21st Regiment US Army, which was the first force to encounter the invading North Korean army during the first few hours of the Korean War.

In that war, said Dunford, the US military fought on the ground, at a time and in conditions it did not expect, and the initial results were disastrous.

“I like to remind people who have a high level of confidence in assumptions on when, where and how we will fight the next fight, that the Korean War took place right after some of the best strategists that we’ve ever produced as a nation decided to rebalance to Europe.”

Seven hours after task force “Smith” encountered the enemy 185 US soldiers were wounded and dead.

That’s what assumptions can do,” said the general, and therefore the US must strengthen its forces’ readiness for unexpected developments.

The US elections are behind us. It’s been said that “assumption is the mother of all messups,” and that rule applies to lesson learned from TFS encounter. In this case, all that was needed was to erase all that was written before the morning of Wednesday, November 9, and rewrite it so it will be relevant to the new reality.

There are cases, as described by Dunford, where the price of assumption is much heavier.

During the time left before he takes office, President-elect Trump should conduct an in-depth study of the many responsibilities that await him. Until now Trump focused mostly on campaign issues and devoted his attention to defeating other GOP contenders, but now the focus will shift to governing related tasks: appointing cabinet members, developing a legislative schedule in cooperation with GOP leadership and developing an action plan for the first hundred days of his presidency.

“The first hundred days” index, traditionally used to assess one’s presidency, originated with president Franklin Roosevelt, who in his first hundred days in office carried out his “New Deal” to rescue the economy from the Great Depression of the Thirties. Trump, needless to say, isn’t Roosevelt, but even Reagan, who won the Cold War and in the early days of his administration solved the Iran hostage crisis, was similarly criticized before taking office.

In the third episode of The West Wing, a serial political drama about the Democratic administration of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen), the new president is required to decide how to respond to a terrorist attack guided by the Syrian government. During the attack a US Air Force transport plane is shot down. The president refuses to accept the proportional response proposed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Fitzwallace, and replies that “from this time and this place, gentlemen, you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response. We come back with total disaster!” Moreover, the president demands the admiral and the national security team take the next 60 minutes and put together an American response scenario that doesn’t make him think they are just “docking somebody’s damn allowance!” It’s more than likely that after Trump’s election some people remembered that scene and imagine that this is (more or less) the way that the new president will behave in his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs in the situation room.

During Operation Protective Edge that West Wing scene went viral among Israelis’ social network accounts. Israel advocacy groups, mostly from the political Right, presented it in support of their argument that Israel should stop the IDF’s proportional attacks on the Gaza strip and move to disproportionate response. However, the rest of the episode holds a far more important lesson: in the next scene President Bartlet is proposing an air-strike scenario that includes attacking extensive critical infrastructure in Syria, which could lead to a humanitarian crisis. Bartlet understand the consequences, but despite the expected tragic loss of life, he can’t “dole out five thousand dollars’ worth of punishment for a fifty-buck crime.”

That is what the creator of the series, Aaron Sorkin, was trying to teach the audience: a limitations of power lesson.

Even the sole superpower in the world can’t do as it pleases (or as it’s commander-in-chief pleases).

“We must not, for example, send military forces into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish,” wrote Gen. Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Powell’s rule of thumb directed President Barack Obama throughout his administration. The complexity of conflicts at the present time taught him not to rush to send forces into harm’s way before formulating a coherent strategy and a defined endgame. For example, Obama has refrained from sending ground forces to battle against Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, since such an action may well mire the US in a war of attrition.

As an alternative, the president approved an unprecedented number of special operations and air raids.

Earlier this month it was reported that the 82nd Airborne’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team is deploying to Iraq. The 1,700 paratroopers, from one of the toughest divisions in the world, will continue training, advising and guiding Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS, but will not take an active role in the fight. In contrast, about 100 soldiers from the US Army special forces are taking part in the campaign in Mosul, and are responsible for directing precision strikes from air. It’s unlikely that during the Trump administration there will be a change in the scope of “boots on the ground” that Americans are willing to invest in that fight.

Trump’s closest security adviser is General Michael Flynn, who is considered a prominent candidate for the position of secretary of defense, or national security adviser. Flynn joined the US Army as a graduate of the ROTC and volunteered for the paratroopers, but spent most of his time in service as an intelligence officer and in his last position was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Flynn has stated more than once that the United States should soften its policy toward Russia.

In 2013, a year before he retired, the DIA held a seminar to commemorate the 30th anniversary Operation Urgent Fury, the US invasion of Grenada in ‘83. Flynn, who fought on the ground as a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, said then that it was the first time he “ever saw a dead American soldier in a body bag.”

The general also and said that “being ready for the unknown – that’s one thing that DIA has always been at the front of.” He, like Trump, may find that the Russians, as General Mark Milley recently warned, are playing a game of their own aimed at achieving power and influence while disrupting American interests.

In 69 days Donald Trump will become the commander-in-chief of the strongest army in the world. He will not have a hundred days of grace, or even a few hours, before being required to go into the situation room with generals Dunford, Milley and probably Flynn, and decide how the US will respond to any given event. He will then learn the hard lesson about the limitations of power and that the view from the chair of the presidential candidate is very different from the view from the one located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the fifth season of the West Wing, due to the constitutional crisis the speaker of the House, a right-wing conservative Republican (played by John Goodman), takes over the presidency, and is discovered, to the surprise of the characters and the viewers, to be a smart, cautious and moderate strategist. It could happen now, as well.


The author is the coordinator of the Military & Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", November 15, 2016)