Foreverwar Roundup 8/3/16

6548099125_057759cc6d_o

Once a Qaddafi stronghold, Sirte, Libya is now an IS stronghold and a target in a new U.S. air war (Christian Jacob Hansen/Danish Demining Group photo)

With the U.S. presidential election in less than 100 days, it is easy for news about the escalating war against al-Qaida, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL), and other bad guys to get buried under headlines about what supposedly shocking thing Trump said about Muslims, babies, or Purple Heart medals. In case you missed it:

Non-special operations troops outside the wire in Iraq

In Iraq, non-special operations troops, i.e. what might be considered legitimate “boots on the ground”are conducting operations outside the confines of their bases in preparation  for the invasion of Mosul. (“The boots on the ground have to be Iraqi” said President Obama once in 2014.) U.S. Army Combat Engineers are assisting an Iraqi engineer battalion build a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River.

American forces were completely withdrawn from Iraq in December, 2011, but today there are over 3,600 in country.

Jabhat al-Nusra rebrands

Jabhat al-Nusra (also know known as Nusra Front), al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, announced that it was changing its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). The name change in itself is interesting because Jabhat al-Nusra’s full name was Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahli al-Sham or “the front of support for the people of the Levant”—a decidedly soft and cuddly name for what was effectively al-Qaida in Syria.

The new name has more direct ambitions: the conquest of Sham. Sham is often translated as the Western concept of the Levant or a “greater Syria”. Already in actual conflict with IS, this now puts their name in conflict with IS too. IS was once the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. The once-Nusra now wants to conquer that territory claimed by IS.

What interested most in the Western media about this rebranding, though, was the announcement that Jabhat Fath al-Sham would have “no affiliation to any external entity” which was interpreted as an official separation from al-Qaida proper. Many experts have argued that this is not the case, but the benefits of not being affiliated with al-Qaida are many—mostly foreign aid.

War against IS kicks off in earnest in Libya

Two days ago, a U.S. air campaign in support of the U.N.-backed government in Libya began against IS. I wrote about the first airstrike against IS in Libya a few months ago, but this most recent strike signifies a prolonged campaign specifically in support of the Government National Accord, one of three government-like entities currently operating in Libya.

This new campaign against IS is authorized under the 2001 AUMF. Yes, a war in Libya is legal under a law passed to fight al-Qaida in Afghanistan a decade and a half ago. A new, revised authorization from Congress to fight what is effectively a new war is not likely.

Afghan forces use child soldiers but the US is okay with that

This one is not exactly news, but Foreign Policy published a piece today about the Afghan National Police’s use of what are effectively child soldiers. This makes for cute propaganda pieces about 10 year old “heroes” fighting the Taliban, but it is also in violation of the spirit of a law preventing the U.S. from arming or assisting countries that use child soldiers.

The Obama Administration argues that a child police officer is not a child soldier, but in Afghanistan the National Police do not do traditional police work like investigating crimes, they fight the Taliban. But using technicalities to not enforce laws protecting children is not new for the U.S. After all, the U.S. is one of only three countries (joining Somalia and South Sudan) that will not ratify the U.N. child rights treaty.

Advertisements

The War Against Islamic State Has Jumped 1,500 Miles to Libya

First_demonstrations_calling_for_toppling_the_regime_in_Libya_(Bayda,_Libya,_2011-02-16)

Demonstrations in Libya, 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

It appears a pending decision was made to expand the war against Islamic State (IS) to Libya, as the United States announced this morning that it conducted an air strike on a training camp near Sabratha, targeting Noureddine Chouchane, a.k.a. “Sabir,” and killing at least 40. The US has linked the militant to the Bardo Museum attack in Tunisia last year, though it is not confirmed whether he was killed.

Since the air strike hit a farmhouse and killed dozens, it is not surprising that the US cannot confirm their target’s death (that is a lot of remains to sort through). But the US’s confusion over who it has killed is a problem. Similarly, The Washington Post recently reported that American officials are now unsure whether or not an airstrike targeting al-Qaida militant Mukhtar Belmokhtar last year was successful. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers, famously targeted accidentally in an airstrike in Libya himself, said it best:

“An aircraft, a pilot, put a guided munition very near to me on a piece of ground where I was standing that was unquestionably out of the Qaddafi forces’ hands, and then proceeded to brief the strike publicly as if it was a valid strike. They said things that were not true. They may have believed them. Either way, it’s a problem, right? It shows that they don’t know what they’re bombing in many instances, and they convince themselves that they do, which is an incredibly dangerous use of lethal power. And it just was extremely useful to see that and consider other things they may be saying to you on one story or another. Because there’s no question to me about what happened.”

The sad truth of the matter is that as the air war against IS expands, the US government does not always know who or what they are bombing. This makes it hard to justify these airstrikes, regardless of how good or bad the targets are. Unfortunately, without good human intelligence, it is difficult to understand the situation on the ground when your closest observer is a drone orbiting at 15,000 feet.

But the IS problem in Libya is not going away. IS controls at least a good 120 miles of territory and growing, 5,000-6,500 fighters, and has been launching a multi-front campaign on oil production centers that is unlikely to be defeated by local actors. None, including the Libyan government, are organized or strong enough.

“The Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure.”

Insurgencies and terrorist groups are most likely to be defeated via direct military action only if they are deftly struck relatively early in their genesis. As we have seen in Iraq and Syria, allowing IS to take significant amounts of territory and establish infrastructure has made them resilient to the 18 month old US-led bombing campaign against them.

With only one airstrike accomplished so far, it is too early to see how the US plans to fight in Libya. However, the Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure. I have not yet seen any studies showing that adding new countries to the extremely costly US bombing list has made Americans safer, yet this continues to be the counterterrorism status quo.

Battling the Hydra: The Growing War Against Islamic State

Coalition_Airstrike_on_ISIL_position_in_Kobane

Coalition airstrike on Islamic State position in Kobane in October, 2014 – Voice of America photo

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford Jr. announced that the United States and its allies have increased intelligence gathering in Libya in preparation for a possible expansion of the war against Islamic State (IS). A decision is expected to come within “weeks.”

Fifteen months ago I began this blog partly as a reaction to a comment by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about IS: “I think we’re looking at a kind of 30-year war.” Then I was worried about inevitable mission creep in Iraq and the concept of a forever war in general.

Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return.

Since that post the operation against Islamic State was at least named. Indeed, it did take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a level where they could begin a successful ground operation against IS — Ramadi was retaken last month. There are more optimistic signs as well: IS was recently forced to cut its fighters’ salaries in response to financial troubles likely including oil prices and the US-led coalition bombing campaign on its oil infrastructure. As the Taliban has been finding out with IS in Afghanistan, fighters will often go to whomever pays the most.

But the war against IS is not racing to a speedy conclusion by any means. Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return. The world was shocked at IS’s reach last November during the Paris attacks. Though some (including this author) were skeptical that those attacks were from IS command and control, IS has released video evidence of the attackers planning the attacks while in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Europol expects more attacks in the future.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 5.28.22 PM.png

Paris attackers from Dabiq, Islamic State’s e-zine

In Syria, IS launched an offensive in Deir el-Zour, capturing an army base, weapons depots, and killing at least 300 people. If they succeed in capturing all of Deir el-Zour, they will control two provincial capitals in Syria (the other being the IS capital, Raqqa) — a major blow for Assad (and Russia’s) Syrian Arab Army.

With a likely expansion of the war against IS into Libya, Panetta’s 30-year prediction is looking better. One year down, IS does not seem too much more degraded or destroyed than a year ago. And though Obama said then that the war against IS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” there has since been a Delta Force soldier killed combat in against IS.

As we enter the final year of Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric from the likely candidates on both sides foretells an increased operations tempo — both Hillary Clinton and her opponents have been falling over themselves to explain how they would win the war against IS — from Ted Cruz’s “carpet bombing” to Donald Trump’s “kill terrorists’ families” to Clinton’s “intensification,” it does not appear that this war will end any time soon.