Peter Brookes: Obama adjusts a risky ISIS plan
Team Obama is tweaking our strategy against the Islamic State, announcing this week that we’re sending 250 special-ops troops to Syria to help the 50 already there to advise, assist and assemble forces fighting the Islamic State.
With this and other recent bump-ups in American troops and weapons to the theater, after a year and a half of significant U.S. involvement in Syria and Iraq against ISIS, you have to wonder whether the strategy is getting the job done.
Of course, the administration is ready to provide plenty of proof in the form of statistics and anecdotes that seems to say that we’re, at least, making some progress after 18-plus months of battling the Islamic State.
For example, the Pentagon claims that the U.S.-led coalition has killed some 25,000 ISIS fighters and that, while numbers are fluid, the Islamic State has lost 20 to 40 percent of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq at the “peak” of its up-till-now power.
The Defense Department would also add that it has thrown some sand in the gears of the Islamic State’s financial machine with attacks on its oil trade, on the “Bank of ISIS” (destroying about $500 million) and taking out its “minister of finance.”
Other senior ISIS leaders have also met an untimely ending. We’re now lobbing hacking “grenades” at the ISIS Internet operation, pounding a terror group which has become a cyber superpower.
That’s all good news.
But there’s the flip side of that same ISIS coin which isn’t so shiny. For instance, Islamic State’s leader or “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still large and in charge, somehow managing to elude the meting out of some well-deserved justice.
Then there’s the matter that after a year and a half, millions “live” under Islamic State repression. While numbers are hard to come by, ISIS has taken several thousand lives in Syria (dwarfed by the number of victims of the Damascus regime) and some 20,000 lives in Iraq (by a United Nations estimate).
Plus, the Iraqi army is struggling to retake Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in an on-again, off-again offensive. We’ve had major, ISIS-related terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Istanbul, among others. And the Syrian peace process is in big trouble.
So ISIS isn’t out of business yet.
On top of the new forces to Syria, Washington has added 200-plus troops to its Iraq contingent – now totalling 4,000 to 5,000 – and thrown some Apache attack helicopters and artillery into the fight to help Baghdad retake Mosul. Big, lumbering B-52 strategic bombers have replaced B-1s in operations over both Iraq and Syria, flying alongside a raft of tactical attack and fighter aircraft and drones.
Of course, one of the concerns is that these small adjustments to the force are meant to minimize the political cost of Americans noticing the gradual buildup in Iraq and Syria, running counter to the president’s mantra about a minimalist U.S. role.
Worse is the possibility that, despite claims to the contrary, the strategy isn’t getting the job done – and these new troop deployments are just the latest tweaks to a less-than-vigorous, risky plan that’s going to require years of tweaking.
This article first appeared in the Boston Herald. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.