Belmont Club

Backtrack Obama's New ISIS Policy

Not So Stupid After All

Hidden in the turbulence generated by the aftermath of the San Bernardino terror attack were two important walkbacks by the Obama administration in their ISIS policy.  The first was an expansion of its military campaign against the terror organization to something Mother Jones described as “much like the special operations machine that conducted daily raids and intelligence gathering on Al Qaeda fighters and other insurgents during the Iraq War.”

Recall that the Bush-era Task Force 121‘s primary mission was “the apprehension of High Value Targets and was organized in such a way that it has a close relationship with intelligence personnel (CIA operators are an integral part of the unit) and has timely and unhindered access to any relevant data gathered by intelligence assets in the area.”  Back then it was bad. In 2004 the Washington Post published a story alleging that TF 121 was committing human-rights abuses, based on a leaked Army report.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the same Washington Post is ironically reporting on what the Obama administration calls “the new ‘specialized expeditionary targeting force’”  that is already killing one ISIS mid-level functionary every two days.  Now it is good.

The United States has been eliminating a mid- to high-level Islamic State figure every two days, on average, contributing to President Obama’s decision to send a new Special Operations force to Iraq to intensify efforts to locate and kill militant leaders there and in Syria, a senior administration official said Thursday.

The official described the mission of the force as self-expanding — more raids on Islamic State sites will garner more intelligence leading to more sites. “The more intelligence we get, the closer we’ll get to these guys,” said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity set by the White House. …

The new “specialized expeditionary targeting force,” which Defense Department officials have said will initially total about 100, is in addition to a continuing campaign of airstrikes and a separate group of about 50 Special Operations troops who are to be sent to Syria to advise opposition forces there.

There maybe nothing new about it at all — at least in principle. Max Rosenthal at Mother Jones recognized the similarity immediately and realized that Obama was imitating Bush without Bush’s virtues. The expeditionary force would operate across national boundaries. Rosenthal wrote that “while the force would be based in Iraq, Carter pointed out that such soldiers would be able to strike into neighboring Syria, where the Defense Department says special operations soldiers aren’t yet taking part in combat.”

While neither Carter or Dunford provided more details on the targeting force at the hearing, the rough outline sounded much like the special operations machine that conducted daily raids and intelligence gathering on Al Qaeda fighters and other insurgents during the Iraq War.

In 2004, America could still detain and interrogate prisoners because it had somewhere to put them. They might be waterboarded, but they would live because some accountability remained.  Now, after Obama has made it a point of honor to close Guantanamo, the disposition of prisoners has become problematic.  They can either be handed over to militias or “evaporated” by a smart weapon.  If they won’t be waterboarded, neither will they live if handed over to “allies” or zapped with a missile.

The second walkback is what seems like another blast from the past. Hugh Naylor in another Washington Post article says the administration has deduced that taking and holding territory has advantages, if only because it deprives ISIS of a tax base.

By most estimates, the Islamic State is the world’s richest terrorist organization. But it appears to be wrestling with money problems that could affect its ability to wage war while trying to govern millions of people in its self-declared caliphate.

U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria have retaken significant amounts of territory from the group, depriving it of traditional sources of income, analysts say. Towns and villages that the Islamic State had relied on for tax revenue have been captured by Arab and Kurdish opponents. And lucrative spoils of war, including oil fields, properties to confiscate and captives to ransom off, have become scarcer as the group struggles to seize new areas.

Late last month the New York Times had a long article describing the real source of ISIS’ wealth: taxation based on territory and population. Secure within boundaries conceded to it by Obama’s earlier strategy, ISIS could raise money in ways that any taxpayer can understand.

Across wide expanses of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State, with the goal of building a credible government, has set up a predatory and violent bureaucracy that wrings every last American dollar, Iraqi dinar and Syrian pound it can from those who live under its control or pass through its territory.

Interviews with more than a dozen people living inside or recently escaped from the Islamic State-controlled territory, and Western and Middle Eastern officials who track the militants’ finances, describe the group as exacting tolls and traffic tickets; rent for government buildings; utility bills for water and electricity; taxes on income, crops and cattle; and fines for smoking or wearing the wrong clothes. …

The better known of the Islamic State’s revenue sources — smuggling oil, plundering bank vaults, looting antiquities, ransoming kidnapped foreigners and drumming up donations from wealthy supporters in the Persian Gulf — have all helped make the group arguably the world’s richest militant organization. But as Western and Middle Eastern officials have gained a better understanding of the Islamic State’s finances over the past year, a broad consensus has emerged that its biggest source of cash appears to be the people it rules, and the businesses it controls.

This amazing insight is not new either. The World War 2 generation took, held, and occupied territory — now called “stupid shit” — because this was obvious to them.  They aimed to destroy the resource and tax base of their enemies and establish a successor regime of their choosing to win victory — another word which the administration has yet to discover.

Today we are told “the ultimate prize is Mosul.”  The Greatest Generation would understand that.  Obama already had Mosul and abandoned it.  Now he’s trying to get it back. The Greatest Generation would not understand that.

In some ways, President Obama is trying return to the positions he so hastily abandoned in 2008 under the pressure of failure and humiliation. His brilliant plans having miscarried, he has been forced to swallow his pride and adopt the reviled methods of an older generation.  It’s been an expensive education in terms of military lives thrown away and countries that have been ruined. Still, better late than never.

Perhaps the worst humiliation is yet to come. Stefano Recchia, writing in War on the Rocks, suggests that Obama and Kerry may be forced to accept the continued rule of Assad as a price of negotiated settlement. He cites the Dayton Agreement reached by Bill Clinton over Bosnia.

For over two years, the liberal interventionists’ principled insistence that the United States should “resist evil” head-on and refuse to ratify the results of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia…

the Dayton agreement’s signatories included three notorious warlords accused of complicity in war crimes: Presidents Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia (who represented the country’s Muslim community), Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia/Yugoslavia. …

Arguably, it was this pragmatic accommodation with suspected war criminals, combined with Bosnia’s de facto internal partition, that made Dayton possible and ultimately made the agreement stick — much more than the limited, “pinprick” air strikes launched by the United States and its allies in the aftermath of Srebrenica. …

There can be little doubt that in the long run, most people would be better off if Assad left power and an inclusive, representative, and democratic government emerged in Syria. In the short run, however, regime change in Syria would most likely plunge the country into complete chaos, possibly further empowering the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” and associated militias.

It would be ironic in the extreme if an administration that came to power criticizing George Bush’s replacement of the war criminal Saddam with an American client state is forced  not only to adopt his predecessor’s military strategy but eat crow for the privilege of keeping another war criminal in power.  He’s gone all the way round to settle for a draw.

What would history say?

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