SPECIAL REPORT: The Military Loves the Obama Doctrine. Can It Survive Trump?

U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division train Iraqi soldiers during a live-fire movement exercise at Camp Taji, Iraq, April 12, 2015.

Sgt. Cody Quinn, CJTF-OIR Public Affairs

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U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division train Iraqi soldiers during a live-fire movement exercise at Camp Taji, Iraq, April 12, 2015.

Commanders say they’re already fighting ISIS the right way: “by, with, and through” local forces.

ERBIL, Iraq – There’s no welcome sign at this U.S military base discreetly tucked into the corner of the Kurdistan International Airport in northern Iraq. It doesn’t even have a name. But it’s here. Thousands of troops are here, including Americans, Germans, Italians, Finns, and Brits. And this time, it seems the U.S. military is in Iraq to stay.

The temporary tents and dining hall erected to house American forces — including special operators, CIA agents, and private military contractors who hunt, kill, and interrogate for America — are being replaced with permanent buildings. At least five types of U.S. military helicopters criss-cross the bright September skies over Kurdistan’s peaceful, bustling capital city, some ferrying generals up from Baghdad, others heading north into Syria with bearded special operators’ feet dangling from Black Hawk doors, or banking west toward Mosul, bringing Americans to the front lines of war.

It sounds busy and feels familiar, but today’s war in Iraq is a far cry from the mammoth effort of a decade ago. Gone are the hundreds of thousands of American troops and contractors occupying hundreds of sprawling bases and outposts across the country. Gone is the Bush administration’s total war and total occupation of a country. In its place is the Obama Doctrine.

What’s that? In his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama pledged to keep American troops out of unnecessary fighting while helping local populations defend and govern themselves. In short, it was his reaction to the Iraq War and over-extending America in the Middle East, explained Jeff Goldberg in his blockbuster article in Defense One’s sister publication, The Atlantic, after spending hours with the commander in chief. “Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States,” he said.

But ISIS’ rise in Iraq and Syria has confronted this vision with shocking reality. The unmitigated slaughter of Syrian civilians has provoked heavy, if not quite universal, condemnation of Obama’s and other Western governments. It angered an American electorate tired of wars in the Middle East but increasingly fearful of Islamic extremist terrorism reaching Europe and America. And it fueled perceptions that Obama was keeping the mighty American military on the sidelines, instead of just taking out what looked like nothing more than a savage band of pickup-driving psychopathic murderers. (One 2016 frustrated presidential candidate made the ridiculous suggestion of “carpet-bombing” Iraq.) Obama and U.S. generals have vowed to “destroy ISIS” — but he will this week be replaced in office by a candidate who said he could do it more quickly.

But what does the military want? In dozens of interviews with U.S. officials and coalition military commanders — from the White House to America’s war room in Tampa, the command in Baghdad, forward control centers and training grounds in Kurdistan, defense minister meetings in Paris, and NATO headquarters in Brussels — one thing was clear and consistent. On the whole, America’s military leaders do not want to be here any longer than they must. It also is clear that they wanted to “accelerate” the campaign against ISIS, as Obama has been doing already for more than a year with success, but they do not want America to own this fight. They do want Iraqis to fight and a functioning Iraqi government to take control when the Islamic State is gone. They don’t want to defeat ISIS only to become an occupying force of sitting ducks.

What they want is what Obama wants: patience. It’s a word I hear over and over, talking with special operators tasked to train local forces to fight terrorism and with the faraway policy makers they support. Like the outgoing president, they believe an enduring effort and a long view are key to winning the conflicts in the Middle East and halting the spread of global terrorism. But will Trump have the same patience as Obama? Will Trump have the same patience as his generals?

PROMISE

Due to the sensitive nature of special operations, operational security, and the policy decisions of civilian or higher-ranking officials, Defense One spoke with officials and troops under a wide range of interview rules, ranging from on-the-record to on background, deep background, and off-the-record. Without fail, they were eager to tell how their strategy of training and fighting “by, with, and through” local forces is working, and not just in the Middle East but all over the world in places Americans rarely hear about, like Yemen, Africa, and Southeast Asia. They all agreed: it is a slower, yet far more effective, less costly, and less deadly way to victory. And they all expressed frustration, a little or a lot, with the press, politicians and even the public who don’t see the wisdom of that approach.

“Could we do it better ourselves? Could we do it different ourselves? We’ve done it ourselves, and everybody knows where the results are now,” Col. J.R. Treharne, commander of the Joint Coalition Coordination Center at the Erbil airport in northern Iraq, said in September.

Treharne knows Iraq. He did two tours here in the last war, including training Iraqi security forces who took control of detainees. In his new job, he was persuading Iraqi and Kurd fighters to look beyond their historic mistrust, just a few weeks before coalition forces started the battle to retake Mosul. It was worth doing, he argued, and it was working.

Peshmerga soldiers training with coalition forces prepare for live-fire exercises outside Erbil, Iraq. 

“And we’re doing things differently now, in that we are enabling the Iraqis and Kurds to fight and defeat Daesh. And we’re doing it with many less soldiers than what we did in the past. We are much safer than what we were in the past. Our losses have been much less, the cost to our government, and loss of life, and on and on, is much less than what it was in the past,” he said. “And in the end, I truly think that Daesh will be defeated, and they will be defeated by the Iraqis and Kurds, which probably will put this region in a better state than if we came in and did it ourselves.”

As he spoke, reports poured in, of civilian families trapped in Mosul being executed or picked off by ISIS snipers, and in Syria, of Aleppo spiraling into calamity. Call it cold, call it wisdom, call it patience, call it an overcorrection – call it what you will. But this is how senior leaders, officer and enlisted alike, said he or she feels.

“If we just sent our guys, we’re going to get the same results as what we got before. And 10 years later, 15 years later, we’ll be back here again, doing the exact same thing, over and over again,” said Sgt. Maj. Carl Pregle, from the 101st Airborne, Treharne’s senior enlisted man at the command center.

Treharne expressed frustration with the chatter back home.

“I feel we could do it faster, quicker,” he said, “but again, it would cost a lot more. A lot more lives. A lot more resources…and in the end would the result be any different?”

At the time, critics back in Washington were loudly wondering why the Pentagon kept delaying the push to liberate Mosul, and why the Iraqi government waited so long to devise a post-Mosul political plan. Candidate Trump was gaining traction at rallies in which he proclaimed that he would defeat ISIS faster than Obama or his rival Hillary Clinton. Asked about the campaign and the complaints, coalition commanders shook their heads, chuckled or grimaced, and got angry.

“Ask yourself the question,” said one British commander at Erbil, why ISIS was able to march into Iraq in the first place. It was because of Iraqi political divisions, he argued. “Would the political scene in Iraq look better if it had been a U.S. ground force that came in and militarily defeated Daesh, or do you think it would look worse? I’d suggest it would look a lot worse. And actually, by the [Iraqi] military defeating Daesh and having done a number of years to get Kurds and Iraqis, and for that matter some other local actors, involved in cooperating to achieve that military objective, you are better placed to win.”

Top commanders think that way as well.

“Would we like it to have gone faster? Sure,”  Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky told reporters in October, just before the Mosul offensive began. “But there was a lot of hard work they had to do to train their forces to do it, to get the forces capable and equipped, and then just get them ready.”

Volesky was the operational ground commander of the ISIS fight in Iraq, known as Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, or CJTF-OIR, and commander of the 101st Airborne Division. He bristled at the notion the U.S. wasn’t fighting ISIS or training Iraqis fast enough, and he reminded whomever was listening that decisions about the Mosul campaign  ultimately belong to the government of Iraq.

“The reason it took a while is, you know, they got caught with an enemy that was, frankly, at that time more capable than they were,” he said, of how ISIS overran the standing Iraqi security forces. “The other piece was they weren’t prepared for it. The training they got was counterinsurgency focused. And so it took them time.”

That’s a history rarely mentioned in current criticism of the Obama timeline. ISIS initially pushed into Iraq from Syria in 2014 with something much akin to a conventional armed force. To match them required training and mobilizing large forces, brigades 10,000 Iraqis strong. It was a tall task to find thousands of Iraqis, train them at home or at foreign training bases to fight as conventional brigades. By the time the U.S.-led response was trying to do that, ISIS already had overrun much of the country and was settling in to become a terrorist-insurgency group. That meant the U.S. needed to switch from rapidly building a conventional large ground force to recruiting, training, and preparing Iraqi counter-terrorism forces.

Two U.S. military officials who led that training told Defense One they expected it would take two years to build up the right force, and it has. None of the fits and starts surprised the Special Forces, who have been training indigenous fighters for decades. The process is always “iterative,” many would say. The difference is that the public is paying attention to Iraq and Syria. The same thing is happening elsewhere in the world, drawing little interest or complaints from Washington or the American public.

U.S. special operations commanders also reject the broad political rhetoric that Obama is holding them back in the ISIS fight. The only thing holding back anything is the pace of the indigenous force, some said. Yes, there are complaints about wartime movements and speed of tactics, but one commander dismissed that as expected for any military campaign. More arms may let locals take the next hill faster, but won’t much tip the balance if they’re not ready and trained. The U.S. military has what it needs for this mission, Defense One heard over and over. The only worry that commander had is that Congress keeps funding what they do. If the mission grows, so would the requirements. Especially for drones and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

HOLDING THE LINE

American reticence to send troops to take on ISIS has barely budged since 2014. Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey repeatedly warned against getting into a fight without having adequate local forces or a competent and legitimate government to give it back to, and argued for an era of “prolonged campaigns” against terrorism. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno repeatedly warned about “the next day.” (Though last month he reemerged from retirement to say on Fox News he feels President-elect Trump’s team would be more aggressive to “reassert ourselves” in the Middle East and “not take the military option off the table, which is what we’ve done for several years now.”) There are reports that some in U.S. Central  Command and Special Operations Command wanted to send in larger numbers of elite American forces sooner. But on the whole, neither the president nor his top generals were having any of it.

When Gen. Robert Neller took over the Marine Corps in October 2015, the new commandant was asked in one of his first talks with his troops whether the Marines would be sent to take Raqqa, ISIS’ seat of power in Syria. Neller said Marines easily could take the city, but: “What’s next? Who do we give it to? I don’t want to stay in Raqqa. There’s nothing there that I want,” he said. The Marines have stayed home.

And so the training mission evolved, the war got deadlier, the critics louder, and Obama – he didn’t budge. To augment the Iraqis’ efforts, the president has opted to put on the ground only secretive U.S. military units, intelligence gatherers, and private contractors to hunt for terrorist leaders and hostages, while leading from the air and seas a multinational aerial campaign that has delivered more than 17,000 air strikes. When ISIS fanatics slaughtered Iraqis in unthinkable ways, revealing themselves as a death cult far bloodier than al-Qaeda, Obama refused to intervene more directly. When they beheaded American hostages, he refused. When they overtook Iraqi cities etched into the walls of American combat lore – Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi – he refused. When they turned Aleppo into a household name, a new synonym for atrocity, and an American presidential campaign joke, Obama refused. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others called for no-fly zones over Syria, he refused. When Chris Christie and other GOP presidential candidates called him “feckless,”  and when President-elect Donald Trump called for the U.S. to quickly defeat ISIS and and disengage from the Middle East, Obama refused.

But 2016 also was the year, it appears, that the Obama Doctrine started to work and ISIS began to lose. Obama’s team is leaving office with proclamations that they have helped lay the foundation for what Defense Secretary Ash Carter repeatedly calls a “lasting defeat” of ISIS.

“This is how we framed the coalition military campaign plan about a year ago — in order to do that, we needed to work through capable and motivated local forces. Those we have laboriously worked with, built, trained over time,” Carter told reporters aboard his nuclear-hardened 747 en route to Iraq in October.

Carter touched down in Baghdad as the Mosul offensive was beginning. After meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and war commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, he said, “We’re always looking for opportunities to do more and to hasten this campaign.”

But he, and other officials, scoffed at suggestions that U.S. troops might be rushed in to take Mosul themselves.

One reason there isn’t a larger U.S. force in Iraq’s north or in Syria is because there aren’t larger U.S. bases from which to operate. Townsend said that was a deliberate plan, to keep things small and discrete unless he needs something different to fulfill the mission.

“I have no doubt that we’ll apply the right amount of coalition support to the effort there. And if at some point we decide that more is required, I’ll flag that up to my superiors and they’ll decide what we’ll do,” he said in October.

One month later, U.S. officials were still sticking to the plan. “The theory of the case, in terms of the way in which we’ve approached the Islamic State, is we’re going to accept some risk in terms of the amount of time it’s going to take to get to Mosul, to get to Raqqa, and the risk we’re going to assume, we believe, is more than outweighed by the sustainability that we will realize by doing this ‘by, with, and through’ with partners on the ground,” said Andrew Exum, deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East, at the Defense One Summit.

HEARD IT ALL BEFORE

Doubters reject all of it. The U.S. spent years training Iraqi forces before 2011, and those Iraqis literally dropped their weapons and fled at the first sight of ISIS. And look at Afghanistan, where for 15 years every war commander has insisted training worked, but without a larger American presence security has deteriorated. Why should Americans trust it will succeed this time?

Many didn’t. In 2015, these were some of the typical headlines: “Five Things That Won’t Work in Iraq,” (the first thing was “ Send in the Trainers”); “Why the U.S.(still) can’t train the Iraqi military” (it’s too big and Iraqi politics still stink); “Why the U.S. military can’t succeed in training foreign armies” (they lack motivation); or “Why Is the American Military So Bad at Teaching Others How to Fight?” (it’s just too complicated to teach, and the U.S. never finishes the job).

The soldiers I spoke with acknowledge many reasons previous U.S.-trained forces came up short. But this time is different, they insist. Iraq, along with the Kurds in Northern Iraq, presents a bit of a perfect storm. They have new motivation and have shown it. They spent 2016 fighting for their homeland, taking huge losses, and keep fighting. They’re demonstrating advanced and improving skills. And the U.S. has their back, significantly. ISIS is on the run, on the battlefield. What comes next? Well, that’s a political question beyond the military’s control, they say, and there is clearly worry Iraqi leaders will form an equitable and sustainable government the people will continue to support. But it shouldn’t cloud whether “by, with, through” worked to defeat ISIS.

In Washington, that’s a tall order. Obama’s assumption of risk and his reticence in the Middle East has only increased the threat to the United States and troops serving there, critics argue. Obama, the line goes, allowed ISIS to grow, gave room for Russia to enter the conflict in Syria, save Bashar al Assad, which has culminated with the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. “It did not have to be this way,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC, in December. “But this is the inevitable result of hollow words and inaction, red lines crossed without consequences, tarnished moral influence, ‘leading from behind,’ and a total lack of American leadership.”

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, and his next-door neighbor Gen. Tony Thomas, of U.S. Special Operations Command, declined several Defense One requests for on-record interviews. In public and private statements, they repeatedly have supported Obama’s campaign.

OBAMA’S REPRISE

Flying back to Baghdad, for anyone who experienced any of the war there, sure feels familiar, but so different. Boarding Chinook helicopters that rose from the international airport and headed east toward the Green Zone, Carter’s entourage flew over Saddam Hussein’s al-Faw palace and its sprawling compound of filthy man-made lakes. Here, war commanders like Generals David Petraeus, Ray Odierno, and Lloyd Austin presided over this country for a decade. They were the commanders who inherited the fated “shock and awe” invasion, the political de-Baathification, and every other Western misstep that took ownership of Iraq from Iraqis, at the cost of trillions of dollars and 4,500 American troops killed in action. At one point, there were roughly 150,000 U.S. troops spread across Iraq, hunting al-Qaeda leaders, patrolling city streets, and getting picked off by roadside bombs as a fragile nation ripped itself to shreds.

That is the historical backdrop from which Obama has operated until his final days as commander in chief. In the past several weeks, the president repeatedly has defended his cold-blooded and calculated national security decision to force Middle East peoples to fight for and govern themselves, save American dollars, and American lives. In December, he flew to Tampa to speak to U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command, which oversee the American military in the Middle East. Obama’s aides said he had long wanted his last troop talk to be here, on purpose, to show his deep respect and admiration. After all, only they and the president know the half of what they do. He received warm applause, as commander-in-chiefs do from any crowd of troops and their families, but privately and on social media some later excoriated him for not letting them fight.

His message:

“I came to this office with a set of core convictions that have guided me as commander in chief. I believe that the United States military can achieve any mission; that we are, and must remain, the strongest fighting force the world has ever known. I believe that we must never hesitate to act when necessary, including unilaterally when necessary, against any imminent threats to our people. But I have also insisted that it is unwise and unsustainable to ask our military to build nations on the other side of the world, or resolve their internal conflicts, particularly in places where our forces become a magnet for terrorists and insurgencies. Instead, it has been my conviction that even as we focus relentlessly on dismantling terrorist networks like al-Qaeda and ISIL, we should ask allies to do their share in the fight, and we should strengthen local partners who can provide lasting security.”

For the counter-ISIS fight, Obama stuck to his guns.

“In shaping our response, we refused to repeat some of the mistakes of the 2003 invasion that have helped to give rise to the organization that became ISIL in the first place,” he said. “The bottom line is we are breaking the back of ISIL. We’re taking away its safe havens. And we’ve accomplished all this at a cost of $10 billion over two years, which is the same amount that we used to spend in one month at the height of the Iraq War.”

More recently, Obama told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, “It still puts burden [sic] on some troops of ours who are there as advisors and facilitators. But we don’t have this huge footprint. We are less likely to be targeted as, you know, occupiers. And if you look at the current Mosul campaign against ISIL, for example, the few thousand troops that we have there to support that effort allows the Iraqi military to move forward in an effective way. Now, would they do it as fast as if we had 50,000 or 100,000 Marines in there? Obviously not. But it does give us the ability to make sure that we are strengthening those folk who are interested in building up their countries rather than destroying them, and doing so in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t put a constant burden on the amazing men and women that we’ve got in uniform.”

THE FUTURE

If President Trump wants to hit the gas pedal and further accelerate U.S. fighting, it will require more than special operations forces. There are enough operators to continue the pace but the high operational tempo is already wearing on them and, silent warriors as they are, they complain the American public and politicians have no clue how much they’re doing.

In October, as coalition forces were on the doorstep of Mosul and preparing for Raqqa, Carter met with French Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the other “counter-ISIL coalition” ministers to approve of their mutual plan and its pace. In a Paris hotel room, a senior U.S. military official told U.S. reporters traveling with Carter that he was glad Obama administration officials agreed to tackle Mosul first, and Raqqa later, easing the strain on the enabling personnel. The limiting factor is actually the number of “enabler” conventional forces and intelligence assets that can facilitate elite ground troops. So far, U.S. special operators are holding up, the official said. “We can sustain this pace. We’ve actually gone to great levels to make sure we have the right sort of professional and physical infrastructure to sustain our force going forward. But it’s a challenge.”

One reason is the sheer geographic span of the counterterror war. Every operation requires drones or surveillance aircraft, and U.S. commanders have requested a nearly limitless supply, from western Africa to Afghanistan. The U.S. simply can’t cover that kind of territory – not in the perfect way military commanders would like.

It has been slow going at Mosul. Only this week are forces pushing west across the Tigris river. Iraqi forces have taken heavy losses and commanders are taking their time. But the latest reports from Iraq are that hard work of training, plus the fresh experience of combat, have fostered dramatic improvement in the past nine months in the Iraqi security forces’ abilities and in the ways U.S. and Iraqi troops are working together.

Col. Brett Sylvia, commander of Task Force Strike, offered an example.

“Inside this small command post, I saw Iraqi officers and coalition soldiers huddled around a very small monitor,” Sylvia told Pentagon reporters this week, in a briefing from Baghdad. “The Iraqis were talking on their communication devices and we were on ours. They had identified a threat with a coalition ISR platform and together, they were working a strike to eliminate that threat before it reached the friendly forces. The division commander walked in, verified the threat, and authorized the strike. The threat was immediately destroyed. That is our advise-and-assist mission in a nutshell. The Iraqis do the ground maneuver and we support them with all the capabilities at our disposal. We work as one team to accomplish the mission.”

“One of the things that we’ve had the great fortune of doing over the course of these last nine months is being able to witness a great transformation in the Iraqi security forces,” he said.

That echoed what Exum said in November. “The amount of training and equipping we’ve done in this campaign is truly staggering,” the deputy assistant defense secretary said. “Over the past 24 months, we’ve trained 25,000 Iraqi security forces, 8,500 counterterrorism forces in Iraq; 12,000 Peshmerga; 6,000 federal police.”

The U.S. will have to keep retraining those groups as the need morphs from assault to counterinsurgency.

That includes the Kurdish Peshmerga, who hope the U.S. stays far into the future. At Bnslawa, Pesh Lt. Nawzad Amjaf and some three dozen of his new and veteran troops were partway through a 10-week training program. Run by German and Italian troops, it taught everything from target practice to how to storm houses and urban assault, communications, engineering, counter-IED, and medical care.

“Morale is very, very high…because they all know what they are defending for.” Amjaf said. “We don’t agree with any injustice…so we will fight. We are ready to defend ourselves.”

But they are weary of Iraqis, who refused to fund the Peshmerga the past two years, and desperate for the U.S. military to stay after the fighting ends. “This time we hope they stay with us,” Amjaf said. “To be honest with you, we have no trust with our neighbors – not Arab, not Turk, not Iran. Because they think of themselves as a big fish and they have to eat all these small fishes. We hope to have a good relationship with the U.S. and the coalition and this relationship will continue, not just temporary for this time, but after Daesh.”

Capt. Tarik Fariq, a more senior Peshmerga officer, agreed. “We hope that they will stay and support us. I hope that they continue…because, as you know, we are living in this geographic area filled with conflict. We will always need U.S. support,” said Fariq, who commanded a Peshmerga support company of mortars and vehicles.

Even the Kurdish military chief of staff hoped the U.S. would stay long after ISIS. In an interview, Gen. Jamal Mohammad Omer said he had little faith in Iraqi-Kurdish reconciliation.

What comes next in Iraq is on everyone’s mind. Trump will inherit Iraq, its internal ethnic divides and external pressures between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He will inherit a complex, deliberate way of war solidified over eight years by Obama, yet born of the experiences of U.S. generals — including several who will now serve at the highest levels. Jim Mattis, Trump’s pick for defense secretary, led U.S. Central Command and fought in Iraq and told Congress this week of his hesitations of fighting anywhere without a clear endgame. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who commanded the Afghanistan war, also has supported the careful approach in Iraq.

For now, the Obama Doctrine looks to endure.

“These things do not happen quickly,” said British Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, deputy commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, in November. “Anybody who studies a history book will know you do not liberate a heavily defended city the size of Mosul quickly, and patience is therefore needed. Patience is needed by politicians. Patience is needed by the military. And I’m confident that with that patience, we will slowly squeeze Daesh and the civil population will be liberated and be released from the scourge of Daesh.”

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