Troops on front lines feel ham­strung as mere ad­vis­ers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops say they should be do­ing more in the war against the Is­lamic State group, com­plain­ing of strict rules of en­gage­ment and White House lim­its on troop num­bers in Iraq and Syria.

Two years after the U.S. went to war, Amer­i­can com­man­dos in rel­a­tively small num­bers are in at least five coun­tries un­der Is­lamic State as­sault: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Ye­men.

But their role is mostly to train, ad­vise and assist — a lim­i­ta­tion that keeps them at arm’s length when lo­cal al­lies go into bat­tle. Over­all, the num­ber of de­ployed Amer­i­can spe­cial op­er­a­tions per­son­nel is about a third less to­day than it was dur­ing the troop surges for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Wash­ing­ton Times in­ter­viewed a se­nior spe­cial op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer who spoke about the frus­tra­tion of not be­ing able to con­duct a se­ries of di­rect raids on Is­lamic State lead­ers.

“We have to say, ‘Mother may I?’ to the White House for any ex­pan­sion of au­thor­i­ties,” said this war vet­eran, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

This of­fi­cer in­di­cated that tar­gets are passed up if it is de­ter­mined that the Is­lamic State com­man­der is op­er­at­ing and mov­ing with civil­ians in tow.

“If the bad guy is with women and chil­dren, then you can­not strike,” the of­fi­cer said.

The source said the in­ter­na­tional laws of armed con­flict al­low such raids in cer­tain cir­cum­stances.

“If you have [the Is­lamic State’s] No. 3 in the crosshairs and he’s us­ing hu­man shields, would we be able to strike him or not?” the of­fi­cer asked. “This is an im­por­tant debate. But are we fight­ing a war or are we not? They are clearly wag­ing a war against us. Are we wag­ing a war, or are we con­duct­ing a po­lice ac­tion?

“How do you ‘ad­vise and assist’ some­one when you are not al­lowed to go into com­bat with them?” the of­fi­cer added.

Rep. Ryan K. Zinke, a Mon­tana Repub­li­can and for­mer mem­ber of SEAL Team 6, said he reg­u­larly talks with for­mer spe­cial op­er­a­tion col­leagues. Their chief com­plaints: Com­man­ders have lit­tle lat­i­tude in ap­prov­ing tar­gets and the num­ber of U.S. com­man­dos de­ployed in Iraq and Syria is too small.

“You need to make sure the rules of en­gage­ment are con­ducive to win­ning,” said the re­tired Navy com­man­der. “Right now, col­lat­eral dam­age is more im­por­tant than ei­ther the tar­get or, at some times, it is more im­por­tant than the lives of our troops who are in com­bat. If we put our troops in harm’s way, you have to set the con­di­tions where, No. 1, we can pro­tect them, and No. 2, they can win.”

Ken­neth McGraw, a spokesman for U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, told The Times that SoCom sup­plies the troops but does not make the rules.

“The ge­o­graphic com­bat­ant com­mand es­tab­lishes rules of en­gage­ment for their area of re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Mr. McGraw said. “We pro­vide spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces to the GCCs. Once [spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces] are in a ge­o­graphic com­bat­ant com­mand’s area of re­spon­si­bil­ity, they are un­der the com­mand and con­trol of that GCC.”

The con­strained com­mit­ment is in sharp con­trast to how spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces hunted al Qaeda ter­ror­ists at the height of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the Is­lamic State, with 25,000 fight­ers, main­tains a more numer­ous and ef­fec­tive force than al Qaeda ever has.

Iraq as the model

Iraq in par­tic­u­lar serves as a text­book ex­am­ple of how op­er­a­tors, in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tors, an­a­lysts and avi­a­tors work­ing co­he­sively can deal a blow to ter­ror­ists in the 2000s.

Troops launched raids daily to bring down what was then called al Qaeda in Iraq. With its lead­ers killed and cap­tured, the group was all but van­quished in Iraq by 2010.

Num­bers pro­vided by U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand to The Times show that at the height of mil­i­tary com­bat, SoCom had about 12,500 peo­ple de­ployed in any week. To­day, the av­er­age is about 8,000.

Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi even­tu­ally moved to the power vac­uum that was the 2011 Syr­ian civil war. He or­ga­nized a ter­ror­ist army to seize ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq to form a “caliphate” called the Is­lamic State. The fight­ers in­vaded Iraq in the win­ter of 2013 when no U.S. troops were present to stop him.

Pres­i­dent Obama au­tho­rized a new war in Iraq in the sum­mer of 2014 that is heavy on train­ing, ad­vis­ing and con­duct­ing airstrikes — a far dif­fer­ent ap­proach from the large 2005-2011 coun­tert­er­ror­ism Amer­i­can task force.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter in De­cem­ber an­nounced the for­ma­tion of a lim­ited ter­ror­ist-hunt­ing cell, a “spe­cial­ized ex­pe­di­tionary tar­get­ing force” of about 200 U.S. com­man­dos and sup­port staff based in north­ern Iraq.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.