TAMPA – A fusion of U.S. special operations forces and local militia are about to bloody the so-called Islamic State, and just possibly drive them out of their de facto capital.
But no one expects a decisive victory against ISIS. The commanders of those forces met in Tampa this past week near U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters to share lessons learned, and lament that the more they learn about ISIS, the longer and harder they think this fight will be.
“Innovative…agile, redundant, resilient.” That’s how a grim faced Air Force Brig. Gen. Albert "Buck" Elton described ISIS to a crowd a couple thousand strong, including senior foreign special operations chiefs who are part of coalition fighting ISIS, and other violent extremists like al-Qaeda.
“They are willing to fail multiple times,” said Elton, the deputy commanding general for the top U.S. military counterterrorist unit, the Joint Special Operations Command. “They are willing to accept tremendous losses to advance their cause.”
It was a rare glimpse into the analysis that drives the elite hunting force better known as JSOC, whose counterterrorist mission is actually classified. JSOC is leading a motley crew of U.S. special forces of all stripes advising and sometimes fighting alongside local Kurdish and Arab militia in Syria, and Kurdish and Iraqi armies in Iraq against ISIS.
Debates still rage back in Washington over how many more troops should be sent or what counts as combat versus advising local fighters, but in Tampa, there’s a feeling they’ve finally been unleashed, and they are comfortable in this area they call the “grey zone” – leading from behind, or next to regional partners as they have done for years in places like Latin America. The Americans, Brits, French, Jordanians, Tunisians and more in these conference halls are in planning and action mode, meeting in smaller groups behind closed doors to share lessons learned, and figure out how to ratchet up the pressure against an enemy no one here underestimates.
They’re adjusting to the messy way they have to fight – a patchwork of authorities that give them free rein in one country, but channel their advice and firepower through a local government or the U.S. State Department in the next. They hope it doesn’t to amount to a kind of global “imperialism,” as one foreign special operator put it.
And while the White House has said U.S. troops are involved in combat, but not on a “combat mission,” no one is wasting time with that argument here.
With Memorial Day just around the corner and the recent losses of three U.S. special operators in the ISIS fight, the newest U.S. special operations commander, Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas cut through the semantics about what his troops are doing.
“I think all of our folks appreciate that they are in combat, in a combat zone,” he told the audience, in one of the open sessions at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, which is run concurrently with a bi-annual International Special Operations Forces meeting at the Tampa Convention Center.
“The distinction we’ve laid out there from a policy standpoint is we don’t want the service members to be the number one man through the door,” he explained, using the example of Army Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, who was killed while helping Kurdish forces liberate an ISIS prison in Northern Iraq.
“Josh was riding the edge of advising and assisting, not being the number one man, not doing the assaulting but trying to enable and help this force to do the most difficult mission on the planet,” said Thomas, who was still commanding JSOC when Wheeler was killed last fall.
“We are trying desperately to work through other people, have them do their own security as much as they can, so that our nation isn’t bearing the burden,” he added.
His word choice hinted at the scope of the task – limiting the spread of ISIS which has carried out some 90 attacks in more than 20 countries since it surged over the Syrian border and took over Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in 2014.
“They have quickly adapted their organization and their technologies, their tactics, techniques and procedures, their weapons, to take advantage of our constraints and limitations,” said JSOC deputy commander Elton, continuing his summation of what coalition forces are up against.
“They hide in populated urban areas, communicate with leading edge encryption, executive effective mission command, and they develop affordable but lethal weapons, particularly explosives made from commercially available materials, improvise armor, and they are working on chemical and biological weapons,” he said, adding that they use surrogates and sabotage, cyber attacks, and even the tactic of providing local government where none else exists to extend their power.
The U.S. commanders in the crowd weren’t asking for more troops or equipment, however. They were asking their foreign partners to take it seriously – and not always asking politely.
“Too late! It’s too damned late,” to kill ISIS by defeating it in Iraq and Syria, said ret. British Gen. Graeme Lamb, the former director of British Special Forces.
“On your watch…It’s reinforced its franchise in Africa,” he said in a session to primarily foreign officers, who surprisingly called the harsh dressing down the best session of the conference. “It's already morphed beyond that to...the virtual caliphate, which is alive and well in every one of your capital cities, towns and villages," he said
"The opposition has literally danced around you and laughed,” he continued.
"That is what you need to have tattooed to your forehead...and not keep doing more of the same. You have to rip up some of the…complacency,” he said.
“Now like the frog, we're just lying in the hot tub and it's really pleasant. The bastards will boil you."
That grim-but-colorful view wasn’t necessarily shared by the American officers present.
“It’s really starting to turn, but we’re in for a long fight,” said one senior leader, speaking anonymously in order to discuss the sensitive strategy debates.
“They’re letting us do our jobs, and it’s working,” said another, referring to the Obama administration.
Only a year ago, this conference floor was full of laments over being held back by a timid White House. The administration has since ratcheted up its campaign on ISIS, with an eye to legacy and a tacit acknowledgement that the previous strategy wasn’t working. The Pentagon has deployed fifty U.S. special operators to Syria to train and advise local forces, and authorized up to 250 more, and also sent several hundred special operators to a base in northern Iraq to target ISIS by air and by ground, as well as roughly 4,000 conventional U.S. troops to help the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The JSOC-run “expeditionary targeting force” as it’s known has already taken out some 40 ISIS operatives linked to planning and facilitating overseas attacks, less than half of the ISIS fighters JSOC has removed from the battlefield. Strikes inside Iraq are done with the government of Iraq’s permission.
The light U.S. footprint has meant an evolution of the teams fighting ISIS. In previous campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. counterterrorist forces worked mostly separately from units like the Green Berets that train locals. The teams fighting ISIS are mixed together, according to Special Operations Command’s Thomas.
“It is absolutely blended. I just came back from overseas. I had to ask people who are you with. Who’s who in the zoo here, because it was that well blended, that well orchestrated, which is a good thing,” he said.
Some of those troops were caught on camera, patrolling alongside their Kurdish fighting partners and sporting Kurdish combat patches on their uniform – a sign of cooperation with their brothers in arms, but one that sent Turkey into a diplomatic tailspin Friday. Ankara believes those Kurdish fighting units have ties to separatists who Turkey considers to be terrorists.
In Africa, which faces an alphabet soup of dangerous extremists, local troops are willing if not always able to fight. That helps to explain why there are 96 special operations missions in some 22 African countries, according to Army Green Beret Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who heads Special Operations Command Africa.
“ISIL is the most dominant violent extremist organization on the continent,” Bolduc told the crowd, using the government’s preferred acronym for the so-called Islamic State. “AQIM [al Qaeda in the Magreb] is the most enduring. Boko Haram, the most deadly. Al Shabab is in our opinion the most unpredictable, and demonstrates resiliency.”
He pointed to the weakened state of the Ugandan-spawned Lord’s Resistance Army after four years hunted by local troops backed by foreign assistance as proof of what 100 U.S. special operations advisors could accomplish.
“They bump up against our partners, and our partners take it to them,” Bolduc said.
The need to work through partners is changing how some special operations forces recruit, according to Navy SEAL Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who heads the SEALs in Coronado, Calif.
Losey spoke of recruiting “warrior statesmen” capable of negotiating with locals, and working with humanitarian groups to bring aid, as well as they raid on the battlefield. He even welcomed women SEALs to the force, should they make it through the selective training that was just opened to all, as he said they would help communicate with more of the population in conflict zones.
“If you only bring tools for lethality and destruction,” he said, “you won't win hearts and minds.” It’s a surprising turn of phrase from the commander who headed the Naval Special Warfare Development Group or SEAL Team Six, responsible for the killing of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.
There’s only so much the U.S. can do to cajole local partners to step up their fight against locally fueled extremism.
White House counterterrorist advisor Lisa Monaco addressed the international officers on Tuesday – remarks that at times left listeners frustrated because she asked them to do more, but also sent what many in the crowd perceived as a not-so-veiled threat: that the U.S. would step in if they failed to get the job done.
“We call on you to be to be flexible and forward-leaning,” Monaco told the crowd.
Then she gave the example of the recent aerial strike against a Taliban leader inside Pakistan, without informing Islamabad or Afghanistan the strike was coming.
What the crowd took away from the seemingly contradictory messages: work with us, or we’ll work around you.
“We can hit whenever and wherever we like,” was how one of the senior officers from North Africa described his reaction. “It’s a kind of imperialism.”
The Pentagon estimates 41 civilians have been killed in air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan since the conflict began, but other watchdog groups estimate the toll is much higher. Monaco said in March that the White House would soon release its estimate of the total killed by U.S. strikes worldwide since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
But other foreign officers said they would have made the same call if time – and trust of the country in question – were in short supply.
“If you don’t do the strike, you might lose a lot of lives,” one African commander said.
One thing has remained a constant, however – the need for American firepower to back up U.S. and foreign troops.
“Our customer is the enemy,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, who heads Air Force Special Operations Command. “The product we deliver is violence. And we have no problem delivering our product to our customer any time.”