“Limited number of American commandos with unrealistic expectations”

An interesting piece questions the decision of President Obama to send 200 soldiers to Iraq, “U.S. special operations raid on a top Islamic State commander last May that swept up a trove of intelligence has become the gold standard for how the Obama administration envisions the secretive war against the militants. But the White House may be overburdening the limited number of American commandos with unrealistic expectations of turning the tide in Iraq and Syria. Fewer than 200 U.S. special operations forces make up the Pentagon’s much-touted “expeditionary targeting force” that recently arrived in Iraq to take the fight to the militants, but only a few dozen will take part in raids, according to U.S. officials. An even smaller team — about 50 special operators — has deployed to Syria.

The Pentagon rarely discusses the secretive missions of U.S. commandos that the Obama administration calls a crucial part of its bid to “intensify” the war against the Islamic State. Yet in announcing their deployment to Congress, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the elite American troops will “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture” Islamic State leaders in both Iraq and Syria”.

Crucially the piece dissects the plan proposed by the administration, “During the night-shrouded raid in eastern Syria last May, U.S. Delta Force troops killed Islamic State financial guru Abu Sayyaf and as many as 11 of his henchmen after a short firefight. They also captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf, and loaded computer hard drives and stacks of financial documents from his compound into their Black Hawk helicopters before flying back across the border to Iraq. Over the following days, the records revealed critical details of the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure in Syria. But the real prize was Umm Sayyaf, who could provide much-needed context to the files and a living, breathing source on how the terrorist group funds its operations. Within months, acting on that information, airstrikes began targeting Islamic State oil operations across eastern Syria, depriving the militants of millions of dollars worth of revenue. But the aftermath of the raid that nabbed Umm Sayyaf also pointed to one potential Achilles heel in Washington’s plan: the need for detention facilities. The U.S. military shuttered all of its American-run prisons in Iraq before it left at the end of 2011, and without a place to continue holding Umm Sayyaf, U.S. officials were forced to turn her over to Kurdish authorities last August”.

He adds “Reliable information has become harder to come by with fewer U.S. forces on the ground. In Afghanistan, where the Obama administration is also leaning heavily on a small number of special forces, a tragic Oct. 3 operation in Kunduz underlined the risks of operating with incomplete intelligence. That night, a team of U.S. Green Berets, who had spent long days fighting alongside Afghan special forces, called in an airstrike on a nearby building where Taliban extremists were believed to be hiding. But a lack of constant information sent to the AC-130 gunship overhead resulted in the air crew identifying the wrong building. The blistering hourlong attack instead targeted a charity hospital, killing 42 medical staff and patients, and leading to accusations of war crimes. U.S. military officials are currently weighing punishments for several of the soldiers involved”.

The report goes on to discuss how “As head of the Joint Special Operations Command, now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal transformed the way American commandos wage war. McChrystal oversaw the missions that tracked down al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and, most famously, Saddam Hussein. During the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus created so-called fusion centers where intelligence analysts and special operations forces together pored over information to help plot the next mission. The analysts were “critical to fusing the various pieces of intelligence as the operators picked them off the battlefield,” said Linda Robinson, an analyst at the Rand Corp., who has written several books about special forces”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “McChrystal’s collaborative approach remains a model for the ongoing missions in Iraq and Syria, several U.S. officials told FP. But now, officials noted, the effort is dramatically smaller, with dozens of commandos instead of thousands in the battle zone. And this time, U.S. commandos will be operating jointly in partnership with Kurdish and Iraqi counterparts. President Barack Obama, who when elected pledged to end wars not start them, had long resisted sending special operations forces to Iraq or Syria. And until recently, the Obama administration relied on air power and the training of local troops for full-fledged combat against the Islamic State. But as the U.S. military campaign came under mounting criticism, Obama reversed course — opting for a tactic honed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

As if to admit the deficiencies in the strategy the writer continues, “Carter suggested more commandos may soon be headed for Iraq and Pentagon officials are pushing European allies to deploy their own commandos. “The more we use it, the more we’ll learn about additional uses for it,” Carter said of the new contingent of special operations troops. “The more we do, the more we learn what more we can do.” But with only a handful of U.S. ground troops, and lacking consistent, reliable local partners, it’s unclear whether American special operations forces can seriously damage the Islamic State. It will fall to Kurdish and Iraqi fighters to act on intelligence gathered by the United States. Yet U.S. officials are only cautiously optimistic about the Kurds’ ability and privately admit the Iraqi Army remains plagued by leadership and morale problems. It’s also uncertain whether local troops will be capable of coming to the aid of American special forces who may find themselves pinned down in a fight. That was less of a concern in the past, when commanders could rely on nearby rescue units to justify taking more risks, analysts said”.

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