This American Signs up to Join ISIS . . .

I enjoy checking my Twitter feed because of the serendipity of the things I learn about on the network. For the past few months there’s been a lot of discussion about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or whatever they’re calling it this week). Most discussion focuses around ISIS’s threat to Iraq (now) and Syria (less discussed now) and the region. Today, there was even a map posted showing the extent of their desired Islamic Caliphate, their harebrained idea resembles the high water mark of various Islamic expansions, although apparently Charles Martel’s victory at Tour in 732 gave them cold feet, because southern France is not on the list of conquests.

One theme of discussion has been ISIS’s threat to the United States.  Many are concerned that ISIS is about to attack, or perhaps infiltrating across our porous Mexican border as we speak One way to examine at this threat is through the lens of MOM-POP or Means, Opportunity, Motive and Past Operational Practice. MOM-POP can be applied to a solo actor (commonly called an offender in a criminal context) or an organization like ISIS.

From the MOM aspect, the potential threat to the United States is high. ISIS has transitioned from a movement to an army that can seize and hold territory. They have income, by one estimate  at least two million dollars a day from illicit oil sales, and more from sources such as kidnapping and extortion. For opportunity, they certainly seem to have the smarts to infiltrate the United States, given the sophistication of their recruiting, information operations, and fundraising campaigns. As for motive, they clearly despise the United States, but would they rather focus on the “near enemy” in the Middle East?

I’m not in a position to give a full assessment of such a nuance in motive, but I find one data point very interesting.
Recently the Free Syrian Army gave evidence that an American, Douglas McCain, had died fighting in Syria. So an American, John Walker Lindh-style, successfully sought out and joined ISIS. So the most evil organization on the face of the Earth gets a native-born American, savvy enough to travel on his own, well versed in our customs and how our society operates. In the movies, ISIS would have turned him into a sleeper agent and sent him back to the United State. Instead they gave him a rifle and he got killed by the FSA. The story seems to be the same with ISIS recruits from other western countries. There is evidence via social media and other sources that Britons, Australians, and others are acting as riflemen or leaders for ISIS.

Of course, any good analyst will note that McCain’s presence in Syria as a rifleman does not rule out that other Americans have been recruited as sleepers. It is the dis-confirming evidence that kills a hypothesis, and it is hard to disprove a negative.

I feel we are left with two options. First, ISIS prefers to fight and massacre  on the battlefield rather than hatch intricate Al Qaeda-style plots in the United States and Europe. This could change if they are stymied on the battlefield and need to regain momentum and cachet, but for the time being, they do not seem to be overextended and have plenty of fight to give their adversaries on several fronts. The second scarier option is that ISIS is pursuing sleeper agents as an additional line of operation to their ground combat and genocide efforts. Brash, active on social media, and un-apologetically Muslim, McCain may not have fit ISIS’s mold of sleeper agent, even in a society so open that the militant Boston bombing Tsarnaev brothers escaped notice before their attack.  Their pick could be smarter, and blend in better, than either the Tsarnaevs or McCain.

Regardless of the option, our response should not be to sit and wait. As perpetrators of massive crimes against humanity that shock the conscience, ISIS deserves significant military attention. The United States has conquered entire countries for transgressions less than what these criminals have done. This is one instance where a good offense can be part of a good defense if one thinks the sleeper threat is valid.

Any “Boots on the Ground” Are Combat Boots

There are boots on the ground in Iraq.

The deployment of, by one report, 129 soldiers and marines to Northern Iraq is qualitatively different from the initial push of advisors and Joint Operations Center personnel announced in July.  Secretary Hagel recently described the situation thusly: “This is not a combat boots on the ground type of operation.”   Benjamin Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor, echoed this talking point saying “These 130 personnel are not going to be in a combat role in Iraq.”  With V22 Ospreys, US SOF, and air strikes now involved in northern Iraq, these descriptions strain credulity.

Regardless of definition, a functional combat force, however small, is again on the ground in Iraq for the first time since Operation New Dawn ended on 18 December 2011.  Its presence and actions are shaping the situation in Iraq’s struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The latest round of the Long War has begun.

This latest engagement with Islamic extremists in the Long War bears some resemblance to the first.  On 26 September 2001, Gary Schroen led a team of CIA personnel into Afghanistan to link up with the Northern Alliance and assess its ability to launch a counter-offensive, aided by US airpower, against the Taliban.  Later Schroen’s team, codenamed “Jawbreaker” was joined by other assets including Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 555 & a campaign began that was the hallmark of Rumsfeld’s new style of warfare: SOF, airstrikes, intelligence, and very few boots on the ground.

Schroen actually was on the verge of retirement when 9/11 happened, and retired shortly afterwards.  All the key players of the Northern Alliance campaign have retired, and many of the trigger pullers.  Depending on composition, the SOF force in Kurdistan may have some warrant officers or NCOs who were on active duty during 9/11, but it is also conceivable that everyone in that force joined their branch of service after the Northern Alliance offensive (the brass-heavy presence in Baghdad certainly has pre- 9/11 veterans, and their experience is a great thing to have on board).

So a new group of SOF is working with an irregular force (the Kurds) to combat a regional threat (ISIS).  The force they work with has been an on-again, off-again ally, sometimes treated well by the US, and sometimes ignored.  Once, under Kissinger, they were outright sold out for political expediency.  The same could be said of the Northern Alliance.  When Schroen’s team arrived in the Panjshir Valley, they found their safe house stashed with bottled water, a remnant of a prior US presence from an “on again” portion of the US’s relationship with the Northern Alliance.  I wonder if the SOF operators working with the Peshmerga have found anything similar.

I feel this US team in Kurdistan will acquit themselves well, as their older brothers did in Afghanistan.  Indeed, bolstering irregulars, is not new at all.  The CIA performed this role many times, including with Hmong tribesmen in Laos.  And the OSS Jedburgh agents did the same in occupied France.

Each effort has echoes of the past, and yet in each engagement things must be learned anew. In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld and other observers were convinced that JDAMs, CIA/SOF cooperation, and other factors made that campaign radically different from those that had gone before.  The relearning happens, because, despite our military’s experience performing certain tasks “we have not been in Korea for 60 years.  We have been in Korea 60 times for one year at a time.”

ISIS’s role, of course, is not new either.  While Al Qaeda Central disavowed them, they obviously bear the same lineage as the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who fought the Northern Alliance in 2001, and supplied foreign fighter to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) during OIF.  It would be interesting if veterans of both sides of, say, the battle of Shah-i-Kot are about to face off again.  This would not be without analog.  Scipio Africanus was a young Roman officer during Hannibal’s trouncing of the Roman legions in the battle of Cannae.  14 years later, in charge of a reinvigorated Roman force, Scipio defeated Hannibal on his home turf at the Battle of Zama and brought an end to the Second Punic War.

We are, like the Romans, in a long war, but we are not springing back from a defeat like Cannae, and it is unlikely we will get a decisive battle like Zama anytime soon in Iraq.  But our government should be open to the extent practicable about what our military is doing, appreciate the mettle of our warfighters, be they young or old, who have put their boots on the ground in Kurdistan, and we should pray for their safe return.

The Utility of Advisors in COIN

Or, How not to Confuse 300 Deployed Personnel with having a Strategy

The Obama administration has responded to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham’s (ISIS) offensive by authorizing the deployment of 750 troops so far, a number that includes advisors, Apache helicopter gunships, and security personnel, but somehow does not equate to “boots on the ground.”

This move, frankly, seems to be another case of foreign policy through improvisation rather than a strategy.  The idea that a hastily-assembled group of advisors in particular will sway event in Iraq is laughable, given the recent history the United States has had with advisor operations.

Clearly Iraqi Security Forces must improve their performance in order to defeat ISIS.  ISF have either lost to or refused to close with and engage the Islamic insurgents during many episodes in the past year.  Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly, analysts from Caerus Associates, present a strong argument for why the 2d Iraqi division collapsed during the recent fighting.  I feel their analysis gives evidence for four points that should serve as principles for understanding the success or failure of any military force that is being propped up by outside forces, these principles are:

  1. The home team ultimately needs to want victory, and fight it out
  2. Leadership trumps equipment
  3. Training is perishable; collective and individual skills all deteriorate
  4. Equipment breaks down and must be maintained

Number 1 should be intuitive to anyone who has touched COIN operations in the past decade.  2-4 are likewise not that hard to grasp, and should be face-palm obvious to anyone who has served in a military leadership position, especially in ground forces.  In the face of the last offensive ISF showed poor martial spirit.  There are probably several reasons for this, but it is a safe assumption that ISF’s failure to follow principles 2-4 contributed to their ability to follow through on principle 1: showing up to the battlefield with a force that is ready to do battle.  In the face of this, the United States is now sending in troops and basing aircraft overhead, with the presumption that this will stiffen the resolve of the remaining Iraqi forces.  I’d like to detail why we should not expect immediate results from such an effort.

We invested years of effort and billions of dollars building up the ISF, 17 billion by one count.  Thousands of troops participated in the training, both those from the Multi-National Security Transition Command- Iraq (MNSTC-I) and those “taken out of hide” from deployed units.  Some of this training was slap dash and poorly conceived (not unlike some home station training in the United States, it is important to note), but much of it was pretty good.  The training effort I participated in leveraged both active duty NCOs and officers as well as contractors with former military experience.  We controlled our curriculum, we taught individual and collective tasks, and evaluated them in field training exercises after

MNSTC-I established training facilities for occupational specialities including infantry, engineers, and first aid.  The effort, and the expense, was prodigious.  When trained Iraqi soldiers returned to their units, Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) and a host of other acronym advisors were assigned to continue the teaching, coaching, and mentoring.  Additionally, as is often pointed out, these teams took on first hand tasks like coordination for ISR, MEDEVAC, and logistics.

These MiTTs also represented a significant investment.  If fully manned, an Iraqi battalion had a dozen or more NCOs and officers assigned to it.  MiTTs were larger at higher echelons (brigade and division), and were occasionally augmented by extra security forces.  The Army developed a significant infrastructure for preparing these MiTTs.  Fort Riley served as the center for training these MiTTs, as they had their own curriculum on topics like communications, survival, and use of interpreter.  The grandiosely-named “Phoenix Academy”, based in Camp Taji, Iraq, provided finalized in-country training on advising and COIN.   A few of us performing institutional training (that is, training Iraqis) chafed at the Phoenix Academy’s budget and priority for construction assets and personnel. At the time, the plan was for the Iraqi Army to have 10 divisions plus some supporting units, including Special Operations Forces.

None of this, of course, saved the ISF this spring, as Abbas and Trombly pointed out in their piece. Clearly training had eroded over time.  This is understandable even if the Iraqi Army were well-run.  We departed Iraq (officially) in December of 2011, leaving Marine Security Guards (who serve everywhere we have a major diplomatic presence) and a military advisor group to help the Iraqis receive American weapons.  The best organizations can experience a lot of turnover in three years just from soldiers leaving via promotion or transfer.  The Iraqi Army, beset by corruption and sectarian intrigue, is hardly the best of institutions.

It is likely that many Iraqi units caved and ran under ISIS assaults (or even proximity) due to poor leadership and poor logistics.  CJ Chivers, a New York Times correspondent, detailed how one brigade’s contract supply system completely broke down when it left garrison, forcing them at one point to conduct an 11 hour convoy without food or water .  However, even if the ISF can fix these problems, it will have to fix other ones like marksmanship, small unit tactics, and even land navigation (Chivers reported the convoy got lost on the road march as well).

The idea that 300 advisors are going to fix this mess is laughable.  At best they can do an assessment, and the result of the assessment will be that Iraqi Security Forces need “more.”  More training, more mentorship for leaders, more focus on ethics, so that commanders do not embezzle unit funds and frustrated soldiers do not videotape the beating of alleged ISIS detainees. More logistics for units that have had their combat supply capabilities kept deliberately lean, first through reliance on US assets, and second through a contract support system.  Finally, they will ask for more ISR and more air assets.  Even if the current administration authorized the return of a MNSTC-I-sized effort, it would not change the intractably divisive political calculi of the political leaders claiming to represent Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.

The arguments for air strikes, ISR, and the creation of a Joint Operations Center, where US and ISF can fuse intelligence on ISIS operations, all have their own problems that deserve considerate definition, analysis, and critique.  But it is particularly galling to start this latest round of involvement with Iraq by suggesting that advisors will be the fix, both for what it says about previous advising efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan’s likelihood for success upon the withdrawal of US combat forces there.

If we’re going to develop a strategy, then let us develop a strategy and execute it.  But we cannot pull 300 soldiers away from their units and families to have them draw TDY and combat pay just to simply say  . . .the Iraqis are still broke.  It is not fair to use the military as a piece of “foreign policy theater” just so the United States can seen to be doing something in the face of losing Iraq.  As a military, our war fighters deserve more thoughtful employment than Vietnam-era mission creep, and as citizens we deserve a better policy for a foreign policy problem like Iraq.