From Iraq to Washington, there are quiet murmurs within from those in uniform that either the U.S. should commit more ground forces to the war effort or stop suggesting it can defeat ISIS with airstrikes and a sprinkling of Special Forces.
On Wednesday, the former top Army officer added to the growing chorus of criticism of the strategy, as did four defense officials in interviews with The Daily Beast.
The current approach “is not working,” one defense official conceded.
Ret. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the former chief of staff of the Army, who retired in August, said there was only so much Special Forces and Kurdish troops, who are considered the best local force on the ground, could do on their own against ISIS.
“You can’t defeat ISIS without having people on the ground,” Odierno said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “The intelligence we’re missing is the intelligence you gain on the ground.”
The lesson of the past 17 months, since the U.S. launched a multi-nation air campaign against the militant group in Iraq and Syria, is that airstrikes alone cannot defeat ISIS, skeptics argued. They said the most accurate intelligence comes from U.S. ground troops, who could assess the effect of the airstrikes and when the next strike campaign should happen.
But those troops aren’t forthcoming.
“Our hands are tied. You want us to do more, then go talk to those guys across the river,” a second frustrated defense official explained, referring to the White House.
Complicating the fight against ISIS, as well as al Qaeda, which has a branch in Syria, is the way that the groups have embedded themselves in the broader crisis of failing governments and civil war in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“The terrorists have fused their jihad with the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, as well as the Sinai [in Egypt]. Traditional counterterrorism intelligence analysis is not sufficient to assess the situation, which requires a much broader approach,” said Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer and terrorism expert.
Technical intelligence-gathering with satellite imagery and communications intercepts is the kind of spying the U.S. excels at, but it’s unlikely to make a dent in ISIS’s advance.
“We see everything there is to see, and can intercept and decode almost every type of electronic communication. What the U.S. is singularly bad at is human intelligence,” gathering information from spies on the ground, said Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Washington-based Institute of the Study of War, and a critic of the current strategy. “It takes a lot of time, patience, and credibility to develop sources that are willing to share what they know.”
The U.S. developed a robust human source network in 2007 and 2008 when fighting ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, as part of the so-called troop surge. But that strategy benefited from hundreds of thousands of combat forces and large numbers of special operations forces, who could gather intelligence from their sources, as well as from captured laptops and phones, and use it to track down more fighters.
A U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast that a surge-like intelligence model wasn’t an apt analogy for what's needed to fight ISIL, in large part because it's not sustainable. It would require large amounts intelligence resources as well as large numbers of troops to secure areas that are cleared of enemy fighters for the long term.
The U.S. also formed alliances with Sunni tribal leaders that helped to break Al Qaeda in Iraq’s grip and ultimately devastate the insurgent group. But today, the Sunni tribes in Iraq, where ISIS has dug in and seized large amounts of territory, are reluctant to cooperate with the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which they see as too close to Iran and unwilling to meet Sunni demands, including greater representation in government institutions.
“It’s a fact of life, ISIS won’t be pushed out of Iraq without Sunni help,” said Mark Alsalih, a Sunni lobbyist in Washington and the president of the Iraq Stability and Security Program, composed of citizens and tribal sheikhs.
“The sheikhs I talk to say they could to it in a few weeks, not months. A lot of people in those towns [that ISIS occupies] could just turn against ISIS. The only thing holding them back is they don’t have an agreement with the U.S. or the Iraqi government about their demands,” Alsalih said.
The U.S. strategy is also hampered by restrictive rules of engagement, some argued. In the past, mid-level commanders could approve airstrikes. But now, that approval goes up the chain of command to the level of a general in some cases, and that means getting approval for strikes takes more time.
The point of the restrictive rules is to minimize civilian casualties, but some said this is actually a means for the U.S. to limit its involvement.
“The war against ISIS has more restrictive rules of engagement for its airstrikes than any other U.S.-led air operation in history,” said Harmer. “It is morally right to minimize casualties and strategically advantageous. But if you are not willing to risk any civilian casualties, you give ISIS a get-out-of-jail-free card to use civilian as human shields.”
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and did little to assuage lawmakers’ concerns that the strategy isn’t working. They struggled to sell the plan to both Republicans and Democrats.
Carter conceded that the strategy so far had failed to contain ISIS, but insisted it was working.
“I think that we are building momentum against ISIS,” he said.
But adding to a sense of confusion and contradiction in the strategy, the administration appeared to open the door for adding ground troops. In his opening statement, Carter said the administration rejects “significant” ground forces, the first time he introduced that qualifying adjective.
Carter said that Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “recognizes that in principle there are alternatives to the strategic approach we have adopted to drive ISIL from Syrian and Iraqi territory—including the introduction of a significant foreign ground force, hypothetically international but including U.S. forces—even in the absence of capable, motivated, local ground forces.”
There are now 3,500 troops in six locations in Iraq and Syria, Carter told the committee.
Top lawmakers questioned both the anti-ISIS strategy and President Obama’s resolve to defeat the group.
“I’m not sure the president has ever even asked the military what strategy would be needed to defeat ISIS,” Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast. “I would love to have the military come lay out to us, even if it had to be in a classified setting, what they believe would be necessary to defeat ISIS.”
Carter told senators that he had no timeline for when Iraqi forces would tackle ISIS’s strong hold over the Iraqi city of Mosul or when a newly formed Syrian Arab coalition could take the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’s overall capital.
Salva said the Syrian Arab Coalition could not hold or secure Raqqa and that the U.S. put Special Forces in Syria to train those fighters, suggesting it could take months, if not years, for the coalition to tackle the ISIS capital.
Last week, while appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Carter said he hoped Kurdish forces, working with the coalition in northern Syria, would “be like a snowball to go down to Raqqa.” But on Wednesday, he conceded that wasn’t happening.
“They are not going to go into Raqqa,” Carter said, referring to the Kurds.
That came as no surprise to Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "No one believes that the Kurds are going to take Raqqa, not even the Kurds believe that--they're going to go to areas that are important to the Kurds,” McCain told The Daily Beast.
In their testimony, neither Carter nor Selva could give specifics answers to seemingly simple questions.
For instance, why did the U.S.-led coalition only recently start striking oil tankers, carrying oil stolen by ISIS and sold in black markets? In the last month, the U.S.-led coalition has destroyed as many as 300 tankers.
“What made it possible was intelligence,” Carter said. But he was unable to explain why the military only acted on such intelligence when, according to McCain, the U.S. knew about those tankers a year ago.
“When will the war end?” Sen. Lindsey Graham asked.
Not “until ISIL is defeated,” Carter said, using the military’s preferred acronym, but he refused to say how long that will take.
“What does defeating ISIS look like?” Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono asked.
When they no longer pose a threat, Carter explained.
Some defense officials privately fret that key assumptions of the strategy describe a Middle East they don’t recognize. Carter, for example, has said that the U.S. must leverage its relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. But critics note that Iraqis already see Abadi as an American pawn who holds a fragile grip on power. And because of that, he is facing growing political threats from his predecessor, Nouri al Maliki.
“Abadi is seen as weak and afraid of hardcore elements in the Dawa party headed by Maliki, who is very close to Iran,” Alsalih said. As a result, the government in Baghdad may have more pressing concerns that don’t line up with Washington’s.
“Getting ISIS out of the Sunni territories does not seem to be as high a priority as it is to the U.S.,” Alsalih said.
Some of those sympathetic to the Obama administration’s approach say that the problem is not the U.S. but inept Arab forces and governments. But even they argue that the strategy as it exists now is unlikely to defeat ISIS.
—with additional reporting by Shane Harris and Tim Mak.