US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter joined the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, before the Senate Armed Services Committee today to hold forth at great length about the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and all its attendant messiness.
The committee, led by Republican Senator John McCain, asked a slew of questions revolving around the central matter of what's happening at the operational level, how it relates to strategic objectives, where all of this is supposed to be going, and how it's going to get there.
Carter and Dunford said, in very basic terms, that IS was being squeezed and that progress was being made, but that it's not over yet. Notably, all the attention right now seems to be on the parts of war that don't actually involve shooting. This is generally what the military refers to as "enablers." Not the parts of the military that fight directly to take control of or hold territory, but all the components — logistics, communications, etc. — that make it possible for the military to fight.
Most of what goes into war — or at least winning a war — is unseen. It's natural to focus on the heroics of individual soldiers on the front lines, but before those soldier become the key to success or victory, a slew of other things ranging from intelligence to supply to leadership have already set the stage. And so when it comes to controlling territory, trigger-pulling is like the finish line of a race: Without a finish line there is no race, but ignoring lead-up to the finish misses the substance of the whole contest.
"[The coalition has] reduced ISIL's territorial control, undermined its brand and aura of invincibility, and destroyed much of its war-fighting capability," Dunford told the committee. "The enemy's resources and freedom of movement have also been significantly reduced, and the pressure we are applying is degrading the enemy's morale."
That laundry list doesn't amount to winning or losing the war, but when you're losing on all those fronts, the deck will be stacked against you in the fight to come.
If the assessments provided by Carter and Dunford are accurate, then the deck is getting stacked very heavily against IS indeed. And if the deck is that stacked, then we're just waiting for an inevitable rout of IS when the trigger pulling begins, right?
Not exactly. Later on in testimony, Senator Lindsey Graham asked how many troops local commanders would be able to muster for the final push to drive IS out of the group's self-proclaimed capital, Raqqah. Dunford claimed that the forces arrayed against IS included 30,000 Kurdish Peshmerga, 6,000 Syrians, and another 12,000 people currently undergoing a background check before being sworn in as official coalition members.
Watch VICE News' What It's Really Like to Fight for the Islamic State
Graham, for his part, didn't seem especially impressed by those numbers. And while lack of good preparation and enablers can get you killed, all the support in the world won't do a lick of good unless there are enough troops at the pointy end, actually fighting the fight.
Carter did note that the stream of IS recruits had been slowed from 2,000 per month last year to 200 per month now, and that the attacks on financial infrastructure are making it harder for IS to keep people in the field fighting. That said, there's no telling when IS will run so short that the coalition as it stands now could put an end to all this nonsense.
While the Obama Administration was criticized at the hearing for tending to dance around the question of whether US forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq are "in combat," McCain took exception to Carter's suggestion that any future major ground force would be largely US-led. Neither man appeared to relish the idea of sending tens of thousands of US soldiers into the fight, but while McCain thought it could be possible to get other Arab countries to chip in thousands and thousands of troops, Carter figured that the lion's share of the heavy lifting in a major combat operation would have to be done by the US.
Here's why there's a disconnect: McCain noted that there are a lot of Arab countries that want to see both the Assad regime and IS buried in the desert. The problem is that the international community is currently doing its level best to broker first a cease-fire and then a subsequent peace that would involve Assad retiring and leaving behind the rest of the government, which, with the cooperation of moderate forces, would rule the country.
As far as the Saudis are concerned, this would mean that the Syrian government would still be an Iranian proxy — and there's no way in hell the Saudis are going to contribute more forces just to maintain Iranian power in the region. Therefore, the only country that has the necessary forces and might step up to the plate to help is a country that has developed an allergy to major ground combat operations in the region: the United States.
So based on what Carter and Dunford said, the Islamic State is in trouble — but there is currently nobody willing and able to commit a large-enough force to finish the job. On the diplomatic side, it doesn't look like anyone is going to coax Assad out of power anytime soon. Thus, the priorities of the Pentagon (defeating IS) and the State Department (a negotiated settlement) may remain in conflict until the White House can figure out how to get them untangled.
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