ISIS vs Special Ops

One Half of a Good Strategy

Soldiers from 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) are suspended by a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during a training event Eglin Base Air Force Base, February 5, 2013. U.S. Army

With Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s announcement in early December that a special operations “expeditionary force” will be deployed to Iraq, a new phase of the effort to defeat the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has begun. The special operators will be authorized to conduct raids in Iraq and Syria, and their activities will remedy one of the most critical gaps in the campaign to date—intelligence. By conducting raids, as special operators did in May when they killed Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS leader who had helped manage its oil and gas sales, they can gain troves of intelligence through interrogation of captured ISIS fighters and from their phones, computers, and other possessions. This type of “sensitive site exploitation,” as it is called, involves rapid processing by intelligence analysts, which, during the heyday of the surge in Iraq, enabled operators to conduct up to 17 raids a night.

The raids and follow-on exploitation will significantly increase pressure on the ISIS network by leading to the targeting of top- and mid-level leaders, couriers, and the facilitators that procure and distribute the fuel, ammunition, fighters, and fuel for the war effort. However critical to the fight against ISIS, though, using special operations forces for raids represents only half of the needed military adjustment.

An Iraqi helicopter flies over military vehicles in Husaybah, in Anbar province, July 22, 2015.
An Iraqi helicopter flies over military vehicles in Husaybah, in Anbar province, July 22, 2015. Reuters
The other half is the effort to build indigenous forces capable of taking and holding territory in Iraq and Syria. Over the past year, out of a desire to limit the U.S. involvement, too little equipment has been supplied to willing fighters, and advisers have been restricted to top headquarters commands and a few geographic areas. Although the Iraqi army has a long way to go, other security forces, such as Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), have been part of the fight since the beginning but have been starved for resources and sufficient advisory support. 

In Syria, very tight vetting criteria, constraints on advisory support, and a hodgepodge approach to indigenous forces severely limited the effectiveness of allied local forces. For

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