US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is a man who knows that actions speak far louder than words.
That’s why when Washington’s feud with China over the latter’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea reached a boiling point last year, Carter made a trip to the Pacific and had someone snap this picture of him riding in a helicopter with an aircraft carrier visible in the background.
All jokes aside, Carter is in somewhat of a tough spot. America’s disastrous foreign policy blunders in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq and Washington’s bungled attempts to deal with an ascendant China, a resurgent Russia, and an Iran which is marking a triumphant return to the world stage, have left the defense chief with a laundry list of problems.
At the top of that list is ISIS.
Thanks to the fact that the group is the most effective force when it comes to destabilizing the Assad regime (an explicit foreign policy goal of the US and its regional allies) and thanks to the fact that the Russian intervention means the day will never come when Islamic State takes Damascus thus green-lighting a US ground invasion to “liberate” Syria, Washington has been forced to choose between either eliminating the group or keeping them around in hopes the Russians simply get bogged down and decide to let Assad fend for himself again.
Meanwhile, the attacks on Paris have left the public with a lot of burning questions about why America “can’t take those bastards out,” to quote senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
It is Carter who is left to answer those questions and he must do so without acknowledging that ISIS is strategically valuable not only for Washington, but for Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha as well.
In November, the Obama administration said the US would officially send special forces to Syria. That announcement came after the public had been primed with planted helmet cam footage depicting a US raid on an ISIS prison in northern Iraq.
Since then, there have been various reports of the US ground presence in Syria and conflicting stories about whether or not Baghdad is prepared to allow American boots back on the ground in Iraq or whether Washington will need to go through Erbil to get clearance.
On Friday, Carter laid the PR groundwork for an expanded US troop presence in Syria when, in an interview with CNBC, the defense chief said The Pentagon wants to retake Mosul and Raqqa and part of the “strategy” that will involve “boots on the ground.”
“We’re looking for opportunities to do more, and there will be boots on the ground — I want to be clear about that — but it’s a strategic question, whether you are enabling local forces to take and hold, rather than trying to substitute for them,” he said, speaking from Davos.
Carter’s comments come on the heels of an op-ed that appeared today in Politico, in which he outlines how and why the US needs to “accelerate the ISIS fight.”
The piece is a rambling affair, rife with references to “cancers” and “tumors” but it’s notably bereft of specifics. Perhaps the most notable excerpts are the first two sentences which read as follows:
Soldiers in the storied 101st Airborne Division will soon deploy to Iraq to join the fight against ISIL. They will head there with the support of the American people and armed with a clear campaign plan to deliver the barbaric organization a lasting defeat, which I personally shared with them last week at Fort Campbell.
It’s not clear how Carter’s comments are compatible with the administration’s promise that US soldiers do not have a “combat role” in the fight and indeed this is just one more example of the PR nightmare the US faces when attempting to explain what The Pentagon is doing to “degrade and destroy” the CIA’s pet project.
At the end of the day, the question is still this: assuming the US does eventually retake Raqqa, what then?
Do the SpecOps just pack up and leave? Or does the US then push west to Latakia to shore up the rebels and risk an outright conflict with the Russians and the Iranians?
As for Iraq, retaking Mosul will be easier said than done. As one US soldier who has fought in the city put it recently, “I’d settle in for a siege and a ten-year war of attrition.”
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From “It’s Time To Accelerate The ISIL Fight,” by Ash Carter, as originally published in Politico
ISIL is a cancer that threatens to spread. And like all cancers, you can’t cure the disease just by cutting out the tumor. You have to eliminate it wherever it has spread, and stop it from coming back. The coalition military campaign plan the United States has developed, and which our key allies support, focuses on three military objectives: One, destroy the ISIL parent tumor in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centers in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqah, Syria. These cities constitute ISIL’s military, political, economic and ideological centers of gravity, which is why our plan has big arrows pointing toward both. Two, combat the emerging metastases of the ISIL tumor worldwide wherever it appears. Three, our most important mission: Protect the homeland.
To eliminate the parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, we are enabling local, motivated forces with critical support from a global coalition wielding a suite of capabilities—ranging from airstrikes, special forces, cyber tools, intelligence, equipment, mobility and logistics, training, advice and assistance. It must be local forces who deliver ISIL a lasting defeat, because only they can secure and govern the territory by building long-term trust within the populations they liberate. We can and will enable such local forces, but we cannot substitute for them.
For example, it was Iraqi soldiers who took back the Ramadi city center last month, reversing a loss the Iraqi army suffered last spring. Our support to them included advanced training, tactics, air support and the portable bridges that carried the Iraqi military across the Euphrates River and into the decisive fight. Ramadi, like recent Iraqi gains in Bayji, Tikrit and Sinjar all demonstrate the approach we are taking is having an effect as Iraqis prepare for what will be a tough fight for Mosul.
As we work to destroy the parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, we must also recognize that ISIL is metastasizing in areas such as North Africa, Afghanistan and Yemen. This requires a flexible and nimble response with a broad reach. We have organized U.S. military personnel at key locations stretching from Southern Europe and East Africa across the Middle East to Afghanistan as a network to counter transnational and transregional threats like ISIL. We put this approach to the test in November when U.S. assets from multiple regions converged to kill ISIL’s top leader in Libya. We are now prepared to step up pressure on ISIL in Afghanistan to check their ambitions there as well.