Red Zone

Even Former Commandos Call Iraq ‘an Impossible Mission’

Special operations forces are the elite troops of the U.S. military. But sending them to Iraq without a clear purpose won’t lead to a good outcome.


As Iraq devolves into a multi-party civil war, President Obama has moved one step closer to sending military forces back into the country. Yet the White House has not clearly explained what the proposed contingent of 300 special operations troops would actually do, other than some vague talk about advising their Iraqi counterparts. Veterans of the special operations community spoke with The Daily Beast about what the operation would likely entail and expressed their skepticism about how much it could accomplish.

Asked if he believed sending the small military force into Iraq was a good thing, a special operations veteran and former CIA officer said, “It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s a no thing. These guys are being given an impossible mission. What are they going to do? Host a dinner party? It’s 300 guys to stop ISIS from taking over Baghdad.”

On Monday, as reports spread that ISIS had captured border crossing points along the length of Iraq’s western frontier, the Obama administration cleared the most significant obstacle to sending the U.S. military to Iraq. The White House announced a diplomatic agreement providing immunity for U.S. forces from prosecution under Iraqi law. It now seems like only a matter of time before the planned 300 special operations troops arrive in Iraq. But what they will do there is an open question.

“They only thing they could do that would be effective is acting as a targeting cell,” the former CIA officer told The Daily Beast.

Practically, “targeting” would mean using high-tech U.S. intelligence assets to gather information and coordinate air strikes or Iraqi-led ground offensives. But it’s not entirely apparent who would be targeted. ISIS is, of course, the U.S. focus in Iraq. Still, it’s unclear whether other Sunni insurgent groups that have been cooperating with ISIS would also be designated as enemies and targets for possible strikes.

Another former member of the special operations community agreed with the assessment that the force would be used for targeting. “They’ll be in Baghdad and probably won’t get close to the fighting. I’m expecting it to be JSOC using heavy signals intelligence to do targeting,” a veteran Special Forces officer said, referring to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command and the electronic communications they gather. The elite special operations unit was responsible for the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

The model for the military operation in Iraq is Yemen, the former Special Forces officer suggested. “In Yemen you have a small JSOC force, less than the 300 going to Iraq, that’s working with the government there to hit al Qaeda,” he said.

In Yemen that approach has yielded some tactical successes but has not led to political stability in the country.

Any JSOC targeting element in Iraq would also require aircraft that could conduct strikes on selected targets. The Iraqi Air Force is reportedly out of missiles and has only two aircraft capable of launching them. “U.S. Drones,” the former Special Forces officer said in response to what assets would be used for air strikes.

Finding ISIS targets should not be difficult for a JSOC task force. “Reports right now show ISIS organized in what looks like pretty conventional formations, the former CIA officer said. “There are pictures of them moving in columns down Highway 1. That makes for real targets.”

But absent a clear statement of intent that ensures targeted strikes support a boarder strategic aim, tactical successes could create even more problems.

The politics of Iraq’s insurgency are complex and ISIS’s public notoriety has hidden the broader coalition of Sunni groups that have taken up arms against the Baghdad government. Defeating ISIS without attacking the other groups it is operating alongside—in some cases in areas that still have significant civilian populations—could be exceedingly difficult even for JSOC targeting specialists. And targeting the Sunni coalition as a whole, as if all elements were equivalent to ISIS, could lead to an even more virulent and entrenched insurgency.

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Discriminating between the various groups in ISIS’s coalition will require close coordination between JSOC members and their counterparts in the Iraqi security forces. It will be a familiar relationship for many who worked with the other nation’s forces during the U.S. war in Iraq, sometimes under contentious circumstances.

“A big issue we had was that their targets were always terrible,” the veteran Special Forces officer said of his time working in a joint U.S.-Iraqi targeting cell in 2007. “The Iraqis’ targets were usually political,” he said. “There was a constant argument with the prime minister’s office that he’s tearing the country apart with what he wants to do.”

Navigating Iraqi political plays to choose the right targets is “why they get paid the big bucks,” the former CIA officer said of the high-level decision-making entrusted to special operations troops. “They will have to use their judgment that they’re not just getting the wool pulled over their eyes and bombing sectarian targets,” he said.

According to the Army’s unclassified manual on the targeting process, “The emphasis of targeting is on identifying resources (targets) the enemy can least afford to lose or that provide him with the greatest advantage, then further identifying the subset of those targets which must be acquired and attacked to achieve friendly success.”

The most fundamental terms in that definition—enemy and success—are clouded by uncertainty in Iraq. Is ISIS the only U.S. enemy or will we also target other Sunni insurgent groups? Is the defeat of ISIS a success even if it strengthens Iraq’s Shia militias and their Iranian backer? Is the defeat of ISIS a success if it preserves the sectarian power of the Maliki government and leaves a simmering hostility in the Sunni population that still seeks redress or revenge?

The will to fight is a truer measure of an army’s effectiveness than its size. The rapid dissolution of Iraq’s security forces at the advance of a far smaller ISIS-led faction attests to that. 300 U.S. special operators are undoubtedly capable of impressive victories as a fighting force but without a defined mission, it’s not clear what exactly they would be fighting for.