It is apparent to even the most casual of observers that President Obama is a reluctant warrior when it comes to involving the US in the bloody sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites being acted out in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. Obama was elected, in part, on his promise to end the quagmire in Iraq. His reluctance reflects that of the American people according to recent surveys.
Few Americans have forgotten the searing images of such hellholes as the Iraqi city of Fallujah which required two massive operations to conquer in 2004 at the cost of dozens of American Marines' lives. The sickening images of US Humvees being blown up by IEDs posted on insurgent websites serve to remind us of the real human cost to thousands of American fighting men and women who have been maimed or killed fighting in Iraq.
For this reason, Obama recently promised US troops "I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq." There will be no more "surges" of tens of thousands of US troops into the quagmire in Iraq, or God forbid neighboring Syria. Instead, Obama has asked Congress to authorize a plan to arm and train 5,000 "vetted, moderate" Syrian rebel troops in Saudi Arabia to take on the Islamic State militants, whose army the CIA estimates has swollen to as many as 31,000.
But America's efforts to train others to wage war on behalf of its interests in Iraq have a disastrous record. In June 2014, ISIS forces surged into Sunni-dominated Mosul in Northern Iraq (that country's second largest city) and the much larger American-trained Iraqi Army dissolved in panic. Without American air power to back them up, they fled south to the safety of Shiite-controlled Baghdad.
If this example was not bad enough, the New York Times reported on September 15th that the CIA has issued a study which reports that previous US efforts to train proxy forces to fight on America's behalf have failed. According to this study:
many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct US support on the ground.
This report would seem to indicate that if Obama is serious about rolling back ISIS he will need to deploy some US "support on the ground." This does not necessarily translate to a massive surge of troops to engage in frontal combat in places like Fallujah, Mosul or ISIS's capital in Raqqa, Syria. On the contrary, there is another paradigm that serves as an excellent template as to how the US can deploy small groups of Green Berets, US Air Force Combat Controllers and CIA Special Activities Division operatives to "degrade" even the most fanatical of jihadists forces in this region; namely the stunning success of Task Force Dagger in November 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Afghan Model as a Template for Iraq.
Few can forget the remarkable success of November-December 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom wherein US Central Command rolled back the entrenched Taliban force of some 50,000 fighters with less than 6 US deaths. What few realize is that this stunning military success was achieved with just approximately 300 US boots on the ground. US Centcom deployed several 12-man Green Beret A-Teams and small groups of US Air Force combat controllers armed with SOFLAMs (Special Operations Force Laser Markers) to embed with local anti-Taliban rebels from the so-called Northern Alliance.
The local rebels, belonging predominantly to the Uzbek and Tajik ethnic groups, then provided "force protection" to these US special force spotters as they furtively moved around the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan lasing Taliban positions for precision bombing runs by US aircraft armed with laser guided bombs and JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions, i.e. satellite guided bombs). Having eyes on the target allowed the Green Berets and Air Force combat controllers to rain a deadly hail of precision bombs down on Taliban targets with devastating results. The Taliban could not move without being spotted by US spotters who rode on horseback to the front lines alongside Uzbek-Mongol allied horsemen led by a local commander named General Dostum.
So precise and deadly was the barrage of bombs that the dismayed Taliban believed Dostum's claim on the radio that he had a "death ray." By November 9th 2001, Dostum and his horse-mounted Green Beret allies had decimated the Taliban who collapsed and fled to the south where they were pummeled by more strikes by small teams of US Green Berets. By mid December 2001, the Taliban regime, which many had felt was dug in for a long Vietnam style war, had been defeated and forced to flee to Pakistan or to remote sanctuaries in the countryside of Afghanistan (for some of the only pictures of this covert operation see here.
Today, as the ISIS terrorist army inexorably closes in on Baghdad's airport from Anbar province and is about to overrun the strategic Kurdish border town of Kobani, center of Syria's third largest Kurdish enclave, it is obvious that the Obama administration needs to do much more to stabilize the situation. It is high time for the US to send in US Green Berets and Air Force combat controllers to act as "force multipliers" alongside allied Kurdish, Free Syrian Army, and Iraqi government forces. The bombing campaign so far has been ineffectual and ISIS forces have been able to resupply troops and move freely across contested territory. While Iraq and Syria are not Afghanistan, the similarities are nonetheless remarkable when it comes to the fact that we have local allies who can protect our special force spotter teams as they wage war against jihadist paramilitaries.
In fact, there is some indication that the Pentagon is considering this option. Recently General Martin Dempsey testified before a Congressional committee that he could "envision circumstances in which he might recommend to President Obama the limited use of American ground troops as advisers in combat conditions." He also stated "There will be circumstances when the answer to that question [the use of ground advisers] will likely be yes."
As Rome (or at least Kobani) burns and faces the very real threat of a Srebrenica-style massacre, it is time for the US to stop fiddling and entertain the idea of putting small groups of US troops into the fray to empower our Kurdish peshmerga, Free Syrian Army and Iraqi government allies. It remains to be seen whether or not the risk adverse Obama administration will take the major step of deploying these lethal groups of special operators into Iraq and Syria to give the opposition access to the full, precise firepower of the US air armada. The Afghan example would show that this is perhaps the only choice that would allow Obama to both keep his promise not to renew the war in Iraq and at the same time roll back the seemingly unstoppable wave of ISIS conquests.
Brian Glyn Williams is author of The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime and Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda.