This past week President Obama stated that he would be deploying fifty US Special Operations troops to Syria. This appears to be a reaction; a response to the events that have dictated to the Commander-in-Chief what he must do. After the recent Taliban attack, brief seizure of the Afghanistan city of Kunduz, and the raid against two Al Qaeda bases in Kandahar province, we certainly know that combat operations have not ended. In both of those situations, US special operations forces were utilized.
Then there was the recent Iraqi Soldiers hostage rescue mission in which US Army Operations Detachment (Delta) was involved and MSG Joshua Wheeler lost his life. That is a clear indicator that combat operations have not ended in Iraq and we do have “combat boots” on the ground. The Obama administration struggled through semantic hoops to align the hostage rescue mission with “training, advising, and assisting” and not combat.
However, during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that we would begin conducting direct ground operations – combat. But anyone who has been deployed into a zone where there is an enemy shooting at you will tell you that you are in a combat zone. So history appears to be repeating itself or as the famed Yankee baseball player Yogi Berra would say, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”
This nation struggled with defining its involvement and operations in Vietnam. I will remember that time because my older brother, Herman West Jr., was a Marine infantryman there with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. He was wounded at a place that perhaps many in the Obama administration have never heard of, Khe Sanh. My brother was one of the lucky ones: he survived. Over 50,000 did not, and we see their names on a memorial in Washington DC. And so the dark specter of Vietnam rises up again as we witness the failure of strategic level policies in defeating the enemy – which begins with the inability to define the enemy and allocate the resources to soundly, defeat them.
What started as an “advisory” mission in Southeast Asia blew up into a full-scale combat operation. What eventually became known, as a loss was a battlefield where the American fighting man did not lose at the tactical level. We lost at the strategic level, and it appears that we may be heading down the same path. Just as with the defeat of the Viet Cong and NVA in the Tet Offensive, we had done so in Iraq. However, the winds of politics blew stronger. The media cast Tet as a loss for America, and in Iraq we withdrew our forces when the enemy had been vanquished from the battlefield.
Just as in Vietnam, when the enemy was given a new breath of air, so was a defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq enabled to reconstitute and reemerge as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And here we are again, piece-mealing our forces onto a now very complex battlefield.
The intent is to conduct operations against ISIS, but now that we have Russian, Syrian, Iranian Quds Force, Hezbollah, and Cuban special operations forces in the battlespace are we entering into a proxy war? The Russian led alliance is conducting operations against the forces we are supposedly supporting in the fight against Bashar Assad, the fella who supposedly has to go. The arrayed forces under Russian air cover are assaulting the Syrian rebels we are supporting. Therefore, if we deploy our special operations forces into the Syrian area of operations, who are they training, advising, and assisting? If the answer is the Kurdish Peshmerga, that is understandable, though not palatable for Turkey. Then again, they are not exactly a trusted ally.
If not the Kurdish forces then are we to believe our venerable special operators are supposed to conduct foreign internal defense missions with the 4-5 bubbas remaining from the 54 Syrians who were trained with $45M taxpayer resources? And why would we place the A-10s and F-15s in Turkey and Jordan and not right there in Kurdistan? I admire the stand the Jordanians have made,, but is that the right deployment airfield?
In the military the modus operandi is that we receive guidance on task and purpose: what are the objectives, effects to be attained. From that point, the military planners develop the right force structure as part of the operations plan (OPLAN) that will be converted into an operations order (OPORD) once approved. So what is our plan?
We have some 2,500 combat troops on the ground in Iraq and we have not been able to degrade, defeat, or destroy ISIS. As a matter of fact, this past weekend ISIS made another advancement and is within 15-20 miles of the road that connects Damascus to Homs. So much for Vladimir Putin’s assertion that he is being effective against ISIS.
Let’s just ask ourselves, honestly: if President Obama had maintained the recommended residual force of 10-15K troops in Iraq, would we have this quagmire? There are more questions than answers when it comes to our strategic way forward in Iraq and Syria. My greatest concern is that once again the policy of the Obama administration is to put a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. It is the façade of doing something when in all actuality nothing will be done. We have asked for a conference to talk about what needs to be done in Iraq and Syria, and Iran has been invited to that table – funny, Israel has not been.
And it is Israel that is watching all this develop to their north.
Fifty US Special Operators, while brave and valorous, are not a strategy. Heck, at least Spartan King Leonidas had 300. The Spartan sacrifice led to an eventual victory. The dark specter of Vietnam reminds us of the result of nebulous strategy and mission creep – defeat.