• Looking Ahead: Clinton’s Plans for Syria

    October 25, 2016 // 23 Comments »

    Hillary Clinton has a plan for defeating Islamic State in Syria. Donald Trump has one, too. With the conflict in Syria spreading beyond its borders, it’s essential to understand the new president’s strategies and how they may need to be adjusted over the next four years.


    Trump: Safe Zones

    Trump has advocated for a “safe zone” for Syrians to ride out the conflict. Such a zone would be a swath of territory inside the country, where today’s refugees would reside instead of fleeing to Europe and elsewhere. Trump has offered no details on how such a zone would be created, or by whom. American support for this initiative, Trump has made clear, would be limited to some economic assistance, with the bulk of the costs borne by the Gulf States. Though Trump does not support a no-fly zone per se, it seems difficult anyone could create and protect a safe zone without a no-fly-zone.


    Clinton: No Fly Zones

    Clinton has also made the case for safe zones, as well as consistently proposing a no-fly zone. America, under Clinton’s plan, would make a portion of Syrian national airspace inaccessible to any but potentially its own planes. Russian strike aircraft and Syrian government helicopters would risk being shot down.

    Clinton has said the no-fly zone would “create those safe refuges within Syria, to try to protect people on the ground both from Assad’s forces, who continue to drop barrel bombs, and from ISIS. And of course, it has to be de-conflicted with the Russians, who are also flying in that space.” She has also stated that “A no-fly zone would prevent the outflow of refugees and give us a chance to have some safe spaces.”

    Clinton’s no-fly zone, and in practical terms, Trump’s safe zone, both open the same door to a greatly enlarged conflict.

    General Martin Dempsey, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in 2012 imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American servicepeople to dismantle Syria’s air defense system, as a no-fly zone could not coexist alongside the possibility Assad might shoot down American aircraft. An attack on Assad of that magnitude would almost certainly demand a response; how would Russia come to the defense of its ally?

    In addition, any no-fly zone (or safe zone for that matter) must address the near-certainty it will be challenged by the Russians; it almost has to be, given the struggle for dominance in the region. Shooting down a Russian plane would enlarge the conflict in Syria while at the same time risking a retaliatory move that could take place anywhere in the world, perhaps even in cyberspace.

    The possible juice from a no-fly or safe zone just isn’t worth the squeeze of an enlarged conflict with nation-state level, global implications. President Barack Obama has rejected the idea of a no-fly/safe zone in Syria for years. Would President Clinton, or Trump, really roll the dice on possible direct military conflict with Russia when their predecessor did not?


    Boots on the Ground

    Another Syrian strategy option, sending in American ground forces, will also be on the table for the next president to weigh.

    Trump appears to have split with running mate Mike Pence over Syria; Pence says the United States should meet Russian “provocations” with strength, backing the use of military force to do so. Trump, when asked about that statement, claimed “He and I disagree.” Though the notion of a disagreement has been walked back, the nature of a Trump administration policy towards American forces deployed in Syria remains unclear.

    Despite Clinton’s assertions that her plan for Syria does not include boots on the ground, and Trump’s apparent interest in not introducing troops, the new president will inherit an evolving situation: the boots are not only already firmly on the ground, their numbers are growing. Since April President Barack Obama has overseen the largest expansion of ground forces in Syria since its civil war began, bringing the number of Special Forces deployed to about 1,500. A year ago the United States had only 50 soldiers in Syria.

    Experience suggests mission creep in both scale and headcount is likely. The current fight against Islamic State in Iraq has seen American ground forces grow to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total. The mission has also expanded, from advising to direct action, including artillery and helicopter gunship ground attacks.

    In Syria, the tactical picture is even tougher than in Iraq. The United States faces not only Islamic State, but also potentially troops from Russia and Syria, Iranian special forces, and/or militias professionally armed and trained by Russia, Syria, and Iran. The American side of the equation sweeps in an ad hoc collection of Syrian groups of questionable loyalty and radical ideology, Kurds who oppose Turks, Turks who oppose Kurds, and perhaps third party Arab fighters.


    Post Assad?

    Any new strategy for Syria will unfold on a complex game board.

    As long as Assad stays in power, even without Islamic State, the bloody civil war will continue. If Assad goes, who could replace him and not trigger a new round of civil war? Who will pay for Syria to rebuild at some point?

    Enlarging the picture, how will the Kurd-Turk struggle be managed now that the genie of Kurdish independence is out of the lamp? How will the next phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite relationship in Iraq affect Syria? How will growing Iranian influence in Iraq, a likely consequence of any defeat of Islamic State there, factor in? The Russians are now on the ground again in the Middle East. What effect will that have on the broader regional and global strategic balance?

    The task facing the next president is not just defeating Islamic State inside Syria, but doing so even as the local problems there have metastasized into broad issues with global consequences. President Clinton or President Trump may find their current proposed plans will run into the same vexing realities the Obama administration has struggled with for years. The candidates’ current proposed plans do not seem up to the task. The new administration will have to quickly devise strategies that have otherwise eluded America’s best strategic thinkers since the earliest days of the Syrian civil war.




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    Posted in Iraq, Military, Syria

    US Special Forces in Combat: Nothing New for Iraq and Syria?

    November 20, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    sof

    The United States recently unveiled a new approach in Iraq and Syria it insists is not new at all: Special Forces will be sent into direct combat. “The fact is that our strategy… hasn’t changed,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said. “This is an intensification of a strategy that the president announced more than a year ago.”

    The press secretary is right if you take him at his exact words: the deployment of Special Forces does not change America’s grand strategy, it only changes the on-the-ground tactics.

    Something tactically new, something strategically old

    Tactically, downplaying these moves as intensification, or as somehow not boots on the ground (one imagines American Special Forces hopping from foot to foot to protect Washington’s rhetoric) is silly. America has entered a new stage, active ground combat, and anyone who thinks a handful of Special Forces is the end of this is probably among the same group who believed air power alone would resolve matters a year ago.

    However, in the bigger picture, the White House is spot-on. Broader strategy for the Middle East has not changed at all. That is baked into the American belief that there is an imposable solution to every foreign problem, and that it is the responsibility of the US to find and implement that solution. This thinking has rarely been even close to right since the Vietnam War, and is most certainly wrong when looking at the Middle East in 2015. It has led directly to the mess in Iraq and Syria, and remains tragically unchanged.

    Tactical

    The state of Iraq and Syria is not pretty.

    Iraq the nation is no more, replaced by a Kurdish confederacy in the north, a Shia-controlled south and a semi-governed ISIS-Sunni area to the west. Syria is divided into a northern area increasingly under Kurdish control, a southern section still under Assad’s rule, and a lot of contested space being fought over by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, Islamic State, its cohorts, Bashar Assad’s forces, the Kurds, and a complex mélange of local religious and tribal alliances.

    But no unicorns. Those mythical creatures, the moderate rebels of Syria, couldn’t be created via wishing, hoping or training, and the forces the US now supports in Syria are either Kurds out for their own interest in creating a nation-state (that the U.S. is facilitating the non-Arab Kurds to “liberate” Arab lands will be long-noted in the region) or the usual collection of thugs. America will no doubt soon dub them freedom fighters. Is the name “Sons of Syria” already taken?

    Strategic

    American goals in Iraq seem to be along the lines of destroy ISIS and unify the country. In Syria, the goals, as best as can be discerned, are to destroy ISIS and depose President Assad.

    The problem with “destroying ISIS” is that every time the United States kills off some fighters, ISIS simply gets more, using as their recruiting tool the American military’s return to Muslim lands. ISIS is the physical embodiment of a set of ideas – religious, anti-imperialist, anti-western – and one cannot blow up ideas. Unless a popular rebalancing of power likely favouring a version of Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to take hold and create some measure of stability, count on the US fighting the sons and grandsons of ISIS for years to come.

    The other American goals are equally far-fetched.

    Obama is the fourth American president to bomb Iraq, and inevitably his successor will be number five. Yet even after decades of bombing and years of occupation, fiddling, reconstructing and meddling, the United States has not pulled Iraq together. Special Forces cannot accomplish what all that already failed to do.

    An Assad-less Syria is possible, following an assassination, a coup, or perhaps a plane crash. However, removing one government, then hoping another will emerge Big Bang-like, has a very poor track record (see Iraq with Saddam and Libya with Qaddafi.) Any negotiated form of regime change in Syria, such as an offer of exile to Assad, is now subject to a Putin veto, given Russia’s military presence there.

    It is unlikely in the extreme that more American involvement, never mind a mere handful of Special Forces, will have much effect in either Iraq or Syria. But the US is escalating anyway.

    But the US must do something… right?

    But what if there is no “solution” in Iraq and Syria but to allow, however reluctantly, the forces now in play to find their own balance? The outcome will undoubtedly be distasteful to many in Washington, some sort of Syrian state with Russian allies, a Shia Iraq with Iranian supporters, an ISIS-Sunni statelet, and a trans-border powder keg of Kurdish nationalism on the loose.

    But whether America takes a deep breath of realism and steps back or not, there is little that can be done to change any of those things anyway; the Iraq invasion, if nothing else, made clear the American military cannot dictate policy outcomes in the Middle East. American force might postpone the changes, or allow friends like the Kurds a more favorable bargaining position, but that’s about it, Special Forces or no Special Forces.

    But what about ISIS?

    The idea that absent American intervention Islamic State will pop up in Times Square is simply a new flavor of the old scare tactic politicians have consistently used to cow the American public. The bogey man has just seamlessly changed from Communists to Sandinistas to post-9/11 al-Qaeda to Saddam to the Taliban to ISIS. Note that despite American intervention, Islamic State is as strong or stronger now than it ever has been, and yet has never directly struck outside its own neighborhood. Indeed, as a terror group, ISIS must know it is accomplishing most of its political goals vis-a-vis the US using only Twitter.

    As for Islamic State being evil, they are. Yet in a time when hospitals are bombed by America in Afghanistan and by its Saudi allies in Yemen, and when civilian areas in Gaza are shelled by ally Israel, one should be careful when invoking morality.

    Maybe they were right all along

    Ironically, after Syria’s Arab Spring became a civil war, the White House met with Pentagon planners, looking for options. They came up empty-handed. “Nobody could figure out what to do,” a senior Pentagon official said.

    They may have had it right from the beginning: there was nothing the U.S. could do. What some call Obama’s indecisiveness may have just been realism. History, as well as his political enemies, is likely to claim Obama “lost” Iraq and Syria. That is unfair, as it presumes that it was ever possible to win.

    And so perhaps the White House is right in characterizing the deployment of Special Forces into a combat role as nothing really so new. What is happening now in Iraq and Syria is just the dragging of the same decades old failed strategy forward.




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    Veterans’ Administration Secretary Straight-Up Lies

    February 25, 2015 // 3 Comments »

    va


    Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald apologized Monday for “misstating” that he served in the military’s special forces. McDonald made the “erroneous” claim while speaking to a homeless veteran during a segment that aired last month on the CBS Evening News.


    In a statement released Monday by the VA, McDonald said: “While I was in Los Angeles, engaging a homeless individual to determine his veteran status, I asked the man where he had served in the military. He responded that he had served in special forces. I ‘incorrectly stated’ that I had been in special forces. That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.”

    Stolen Valor

    Lying or exaggerating military service is known as “stolen valor.” There are entire organizations devoted to calling out fake claims to special forces service. In the specops community, this is a big deal.

    The VA website says McDonald is an Army veteran who served with the 82nd Airborne Division. Anyone who has been in the Army knows the 82nd is not a special forces unit. That term is reserved primarily in the Army world for Green Berets. You cannot be mistaken about whether or not you have undergone special forces training and deployment.

    The White House issued a statement saying, “We take him at his word and expect that this will not impact the important work he’s doing to promote the health and well-being of our nation’s veterans.”

    President Barack Obama chose the former Procter and Gamble CEO to take over the scandal-plagued VA last year. The questions about McDonald’s service come as TV newsmen Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly have had their claims about covering foreign wars called into question.

    Thought Experiments

    So, some things to ponder.

    — Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine you have a child. She is standing in the living room. A broken lamp is on the floor. She is holding a baseball bat with pieces of the lamp embedded in the wood. She has written on a large piece of poster board “I broke the lamp.” Would you, as the media has done in McDonald’s case, use the words “misstate,” “erroneous,” and “inaccurate” to describe her oral admonition that she did not break the lamp?

    — OK, another one. You know from my online biography that I have not served in special forces. If I write an article saying “I served in special forces,” would that be a misstatement? If, only after I have been caught dead to rights lying, I apologize to anyone “who might have been offended,” say persons who underwent the tough selection and life-threatening work of real special forces folks, or maybe a homeless veteran, does that make it OK?

    — If I worked for you and got caught lying in connection to my work and embarrassed the organization I lead, would you as my boss make a public statement of support for me?

    — But that said, let’s try it anyway. My name is not Peter. It is Rambo. Even as I type this, I am an active duty special forces operator. Please buy me drinks.

    BONUS: This is not McDonald’s first work-related lie. Obama named the clown to run the VA after veterans died awaiting care. McDonald said on NBC 60 people had been fired for their part in the misconduct, but the fact-checking website PolitiFact.com rated his statement as false, saying that fewer than 20 had been dismissed.




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    Satire: U.S. Plan in Place to Defeat ISIS

    August 16, 2014 // 14 Comments »




    Special Forces Sergeant Bill “Buck” Turgidson took a knee behind a sand berm, at an undisclosed location in the scrappy northern Iraqi desert.

    “Old Mr. ISIS is a clever fighter,” said the hardened veteran, “but even though Uncle Sam has been fighting him for the last 11 years continuously, long past my failed first and second marriages but I ain’t bitter, we still have a couple of tricks up our sleeve. Yes, sir, this time around we’re getting on the inside to unleash hell.”

    The Sergeant shuffled nervously from foot to foot as he spoke, reminding this reporter that he was told to avoid placing both feet on the ground at the same time in front of anyone so that the president could honestly claim there were no American “boots on the ground.”

    “Yeah, it gets tiring, but we’re trained for it,” said the Sergeant.

    “Last round of fighting in Iraq, we tried bombing and artillery, some rockets, even knives and rocks, but nothing really stuck. Even whatever the Surge was didn’t seem to do the trick, and I’d heard from some buddies of mine up the chain that most people liked that back home. Oh well, this time is the charm. Hey, back in the U.S. do people still do that yellow ribbon thing? Kinda liked that. I once was thanked for my service losing these three fingers here near Mosul with a two-for-one coupon at Taco Bell.”

    The secret weapon to defeat ISIS?

    “Actually it is a three-part strategy to take down ISIS. And no, it’s not involving Chuck Norris! A little inside joke among us Green Beanie types. Anyway, the first part of the plan is already in play. We have secretly wanted all along for ISIS to capture some of our old military equipment. American stuff needs regular and careful maintenance. When we gave it to the Iraqis on our way out of the country, I guess that was ‘temporarily’ now, we knew the Iraqis would never take care of it. I mean, have you seen this country? People say they’re poor and all, and then everywhere you look there are mountains of trash. How can people who say they don’t have anything create that much garbage every day?”

    “Hey, you see that little hill over there? I took a round in my left thigh over there in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort when we saved the Kurds. And that way? By that well, near the sheep pen, that’s where I got hit in 2003 saving the Kurds again. Lotta stuff up here needs saving it seems, so after this intervention I’m gonna leave behind some shirts and socks so I don’t have to pack so much stuff in next time.”

    “So anyway, we knew the Iraqi so-called Army would gank up everything we left behind that they didn’t sell off for scrap metal first. No oil changes, no swapped out parts, hell, they’d sooner leave a truck on the side of the road then tighten a few bolts to keep it running. So the ole’ US of A laid that trap out in 2011 nice and quiet like, just waiting for ISIS to bite. Now, ISIS is stuck with all that junk. They might get a few miles out of some of those HUMVEES, but not much more. Our old rifles are clogging with sand as we speak, and nothing meant to fly is ever gonna again. When they call in for tech support, as some of the stuff is so new it is still under warranty, they’ll be on hold and pushing button one for hours, destroying their forward momentum. Sure hope they speak Spanish, too, because the call center is in Costa Rica. Done and done. We’re only in trouble if they stumble on to some old Russian gear from Saddam’s time.”

    “The second part of the plan is Powerpoint. Anybody who has served in the U.S. military knows we plan trips to the porta-potty with a dozen Powerpoint slides, all with animated GIFs. In fact, the Army is the world’s number one consumer of animated GIFs, along with really awful fonts. Another little known fact: 67% of the military is engaged, on average, with creating a Powerpoint presentation somewhere in the world right now. Of course I can’t tell you their exact location, but I know for a fact that SEAL Team Six is on a far-away beach at this moment building a slide deck using only a portable laptop and their night vision gear. The point is simple: we have a couple of guys on the inside of ISIS explaining that all the smart jihadis use Powerpoint. This will slow their planning cycle down by 100 percent. The two hundred Microsoft Office licenses we bought yesterday off New Egg will save American blood today, absolutely. We even had the NSA gin up some fake academic email addresses for us, so we got the four year license cheap so we’re ready for the next intervention, too.”

    “Funny thing is when I went into this in 2003 to get rid of Saddam, I told myself that I was doing it so my son would never have to. Thing is that he’s now 23, and deployed to Afghanistan. Now I’m probably shooting at the older brothers of the people I shot at last war. Small world, huh? By the way, speaking of kids, because of all this intervention I’ve been deployed almost continuously for nine years. Your kids forgive you for missing nine birthdays, right? Hey, freedom ain’t free.”

    “The last sneaky Pete thing we have ‘cooked up’ is, literally, the killer. We have purposefully overshot our drop zones for some of that humanitarian aid we are delivering by air. The stuff is all MREs, Meals Ready to Eat officially, but Joe Troop calls them Meals Rejected by Everyone. The stuff inside is nasty. During our Special Forces training we have to live in the wild, using only our knives and our cunning to survive. Me, I ate snakes and insects for two weeks. After finally being allowed back in camp and given some MREs, the only thing I could do with them was use the ‘food’ inside as bait for more snakes and insects. Pretty soon the snakes wouldn’t eat it either.”

    “So we ‘accidentally’ allowed a bunch of the MREs to fall into ISIS hands. Sooner or later they’ll get hungry enough to push some down their throats. That, my friend, will end this campaign. Can you imagine a fighting force of 100,000 jihadis, everyone of which has to hit the toilet at the same time? Our planes overhead will just roll them up, like fish in a barrell. Actually, come to think of it, fish in a barrel sounds pretty good compared to an MRE.”

    “And yeah, those 72 virgins supposedly waiting in heaven for Mr. ISIS? Well, rumor has it Saint Peter made a mistake and misdirected a couple of Marines into Muslim heaven. Let’s just say there are no longer any virgins available, if you get my meaning.”

    “Bottom line: if we don’t fight them over here, we’ll just have to come back in a few years and still fight them over here.”




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    Hey, Who’s that American? Probably a Special Forces Guy

    December 30, 2013 // 10 Comments »

    Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, foreigners would point at awkward people in brightly colored shorts, and socks with sandals, and know they were American tourists visiting their country. Goofy, then-rich and usually benign, they were the face of America abroad.

    These days, if a foreigner encounters an American, he is mostly likely a special forces guy.


    A Quick Recap on Libya

    Today’s case in point, Libya. But first a quick recap. In August 2011 (just a little more than two years ago), then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the country:

    The events in Libya this week have heartened the world. The situation remains fluid, but it is clear that the Qadhafi era is coming to an end, opening the way for a new era in Libya—one of liberty, justice, and peace. We join the Libyan people in celebrating the courageous individuals who have stood up to a tyrant and defended their homes and communities against Qadhafi’s violence. The United States and the international community have stood by the Libyan people during many difficult days in the last six months. Together, we prevented a massacre, and we supported the people’s efforts to gain their freedom.

    In October 2011, Clinton herself traveled to Libya, bringing along $46 million in U.S. aid, after freeing up over $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets. Hopefully some opposition researcher is collecting these choice moments ahead of the 2016 elections.

    Good times, yes, good times.


    Two Years Later…

    So here we are, two years later and the news out of Libya is about other Americans visiting. A few days ago, a convoy of Americans “from the embassy” raced through a checkpoint in Libya. One car had no license plates. Another shot past guards and caused an accident, after which the vehicle “suddenly caught fire which authorities could not explain,” said al-Taher al-Gharbali, an army colonel in the local military council. Eventually four armed Americans with U.S. embassy ID cards were arrested by some form of the Libyan authorities (i.e., a couple of guys with AK-74 on loose slings.)

    After a lot of initial silence, the Department of Defense confirmed that the travelers were U.S. military personnel. While their unit identification was not made public, one can probably surmise they were not clerk typists on shore leave. DOD said they were scouting evacuation routes for embassy personnel. The embassy said they were part of security preparedness. A State Department spokesperson said “the United States valued its relationship with ‘the new Libya'”.


    More Freedom

    Elsewhere, we have learned that the four Americans wounded in South Sudan as part of the humanitarian evacuation process were Navy SEALS.

    And who can forget American Citizen Raymond Davis, who, while touring Pakistan, killed a couple of local guys. Davis wasn’t Special Forces; he worked for the CIA, perhaps as their actual employee, perhaps as a mercenary for the private security contractor Xe, formerly known as Blackwater.

    While it is kinda hard to find a list of all the places U.S. Special Forces are currently deployed abroad, it is comforting to know that the U.S. military as a whole has armed personnel in more than 150 nations worldwide. The U.S. Special Operations Command has over 67,000 acknowledged personnel and a known budget of $7.483 billion for Operations and Maintenance; $373 million for Research, Development, Test, & Evaluation; $1.6 billion for Procurement; and $441 million for Military Construction funding.


    BONUS: An excellent list of U.S. military interventions abroad, 1890-2011.



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    Army of the Department of State

    June 24, 2011 // Comments Off on Army of the Department of State

    The State Department still plans to hire some 5500 mercs to guard the Baghdad Embassy and other State nightspots in Iraq starting in 2012 when the cheaper services of the US Army may not be available.

    The question being asked is, of course, what could possibly go wrong? Though earlier gangs of mercs working for State gunned down Iraqis here and there, no doubt confusing the concept of “diplomacy” with “murderous funtimes,” and mercs guarding the Embassy in Kabul were photographed doing vodka shots off each others’ butts (pictured), State blithely assures everyone that this time it will be different.

    But why take someone’s word for it when you can write it into the contract? Army Special Forces in Afghanistan, who use locals to guard their camps, have actually written details of expected behavior into the contract.

    Here are some examples from the Army paper that State may wish to adopt:

    “Do not kill or torture detained personnel.” (good one!)
    “No booby-trapping, burning or mutilation of corpses.”

    “Do not attack protected persons or protected places like mosques, hospitals, cemeteries and schools.”

    “Fight only combatants. Destroy no more than the mission requires. Returned fire with aimed fire. Must limit/eliminate collateral damage to innocent civilians.”

    Specifying such details in the contract will no doubt help clean up the mercs’ act. It will certainly have as much impact as the software license agreements where one clicks “Accept.”  Silly lawyers!

    More about State’s mercs in Afghanistan…



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