As lawmakers and former Pentagon officials push President Barack Obama to deploy special-operations forces more aggressively against Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. is taking a step in that direction.
“We’re deploying a specialized expeditionary targeting force to assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces and put even more pressure on ISIL,” Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, using an acronym for Islamic State. “This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations in Syria.” The new force may start with about 200 personnel, a U.S. official said.
With the attacks in Paris putting new pressure on Obama to show progress in the stalemated war against terrorists, defense analysts are calling for an intensified campaign of raids to disrupt the group’s leadership, gather intelligence and build momentum.
“The goal is to start a chain reaction of intelligence-driven raids that increase in frequency and expand in scope over time,” said Robert Martinage, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations under Obama. “The metric becomes can you disrupt and dismantle the network faster than the enemy can repair and regenerate it?”
A model for such special operations would be the commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The tactics, honed in hundreds of raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, were developed by groups such as Task Force 714 in Iraq, which joined the intelligence resources of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency with Navy Seal Team Six and Army Delta Force commandos.
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Without disclosing the size or scope of the new expeditionary force, Carter said the raids will create “a virtuous cycle of better intelligence” and that “these special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders.”
Carter described a “standing force” that would be mobilized “in full coordination with the government of Iraq,” a prospect that quickly proved sensitive in Baghdad.
“We will only approve special and limited ops,” Naseer Nouri, an official in Iraq’s Defense Ministry, said in a phone interview. “A permanent presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is rejected as it violates the security agreement between the two countries.”
The U.S. official said details of the “targeting force” haven’t yet been worked out, including the number of personnel, what units they’d come from, airlift and logistics. The force may number about 200 initially and then grow, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.
Calling the move insufficient, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in an e-mail, “I have been calling for more special operators in Iraq for years. But this is a reaction to events in Paris and across the region, not a strategy to defeat ISIL.”
While most special-forces operations remain secret, a rare public sign that such units already were being used against Islamic State on a small scale came in Syria in May, when Delta Force commandos raided the home of Abu Sayyaf, a top financier for the group. He was killed and his wife was captured in an operation that produced a treasure-trove of intelligence.
“We collected more information off that site than we have in any Special Forces operation in history,” Brett McGurk, Obama’s special envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State, told reporters on Nov. 20.
Then in October, a U.S. special-operations team in northern Iraq helped Kurdish Peshmerga forces free hostages from a prison controlled by the terrorists. An American, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, was killed, underscoring that such operations always carry the risk of death or capture.
At the time, Carter listed more raids among his priority “three Rs,” along with attacking Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, and helping recapture Ramadi in Iraq.
Obama has promised “an intensification” of his existing strategy. As part of the stepped-up effort, he recently named Rob Malley, an official on the White House National Security Council, to serve as his senior adviser on the campaign against Islamic State, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Paris Monday. Malley will work with McGurk and focus on ensuring interagency coordination, Earnest said.
Until now, the only public sign of expanded operations on the ground has been Obama’s decision to send fewer than 50 special-operations personnel to Syria, but with instructions to serve as advisers and not engage in raids. The new expeditionary force will be separate from that deployment, Carter said Tuesday.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, has said that the effort to defeat Islamic State “has gone on too long now” and the administration needs a “larger special-operations plan.”
“A group of 50 is fine for what they’re doing so far, but it’s not going to solve the problem,” Feinstein said Nov. 22 on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, said in November on ABC’s “This Week,” that the U.S.-led coalition has allowed Islamic State “to have sanctuary in Syria and Iraq, with too much time to plan and plot, too much resources to be directed against us.”
While the coalition has conducted more than 8,000 airstrikes against Islamic State, dropping almost 29,000 munitions, the 3,500 U.S. personnel on the ground in Iraq have been limited mostly to providing advice and training because of Obama’s pledge that U.S. troops won’t engage in “long-term, large-scale combat operations” like those that his predecessor, George W. Bush, ordered in Afghanistan and Iraq.
‘We’re in Combat’
It’s a distinction that Defense Department officials increasingly question.
“We’re in combat,” Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, told reporters from Baghdad in November. “That’s why we all carry guns. That’s why we all get combat patches when we leave here. That’s why we all receive imminent-danger pay. So of course it’s combat.”
Military strategists caution that U.S. special-operations raids alone can’t do the job without effective local ground-combat forces that have yet to materialize. Iraq’s military remains riven by sectarian divisions and weak morale and U.S.-backed moderates in Syria have failed to emerge as a significant challenge to Islamic State.
The terrorist group “will be defeated in Syria when a suitable ground force — supported tactically by combat aircraft — closes with it and kills its leaders along with any of the foot soldiers who elect to resist,” said Fred Hof, the State Department’s former adviser on Syria under Obama who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Former officials such as retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama, said a campaign of special-operations missions against Islamic State would quickly gather momentum.
When U.S. forces were hunting for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in 2006, “we went from 10 raids a month to over 300 hundred a month in a relatively short period of time,” Flynn said. “Once we achieved that level of operational tempo, we were able to destroy AQI, allowing the Iraqi and U.S. conventional forces to secure the cities and roads of Iraq.”’
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said special-operations forces working out of Jordan, Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria or Turkey could be “going in and out on a continuous basis in order to keep the adversary off-balance.”
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The U.S. could focus on eastern Syria without conflicting with Russian aircraft, which operate largely in the west, Eisenstadt said. Air-mobile raids could use helicopters or aircraft such as V-22 Ospreys or CH-53s to fly in light armored vehicles and several hundred people at a time to operate behind enemy lines.
“Potentially there are parts of eastern Syria where we could land transport aircraft with ground armor, unload them for a day or two or three, tear around in the rear, cut off lines of communication, attack infrastructure,” Eisenstadt said. “If you combine it with attacks by the Kurds and the Arabs from the north, it might create a synergy.”
A campaign of tightly focused raids would also “change the psychological dynamic,” dealing a propaganda blow to a group whose “aura of invincibility,” attracts recruits, Eisenstadt said.
The raids would have to be paired with the longer-term efforts the administration has been pursuing, said Martinage, who’s now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Noting that Islamic State was born from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the former Navy official said any strategy would have to include the creation of effective local security forces, efforts to cut off the group’s funding and ways to discredit it among prospective recruits and local populations.
“A determined adversary can and will regenerate once the pressure is removed,” Martinage said.