ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — With Islamic State influence retreating in Iraq, if not elsewhere, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is on his way to Paris and Davos, Switzerland, to seek more help for new offensives from Syria to Afghanistan. It’s the Obama administration’s latest move to assure Europeans and Americans that their leaders are doing enough to turn back what lately has seemed like unending waves of Islamist terrorism.
Carter will meet Wednesday with his French counterparts in Paris, scene of last year’s grisly terrorist attacks, and then Thursday will talk with officials from leading “counter-ISIL” countries, including the U.K, Germany, Italy, Australia, and the Netherlands. Their purpose is to take stock of the fight, hear the U.S. plan, and devise ways to get more help from more countries.
“There’s a feeling that there’s momentum on the ground…and we want to build commensurate momentum diplomatically,” a senior U.S. official told reporters Friday.
The U.S. wants to “accelerate” an array of operations against ISIS: deploying more covert kill-and-capture special operations missions to Syria and Iraq, sharing intelligence, disrupting financial networks, and stepping up homeland security efforts to thwart domestic attacks.
“The campaign is not up to the U.S. alone to accomplish,” Carter said last week. “The lasting defeat of ISIL must be a global undertaking, because it’s a global threat. And any nation that cares about the safety of its people or the future of its civilization must know this – America will continue to lead the fight, but there can be no free riders. That means that as we invest in the acceleration of the campaign, so must every one of our coalition partners and every nation in a position to help.”
Across the board from military to diplomatic fronts, he said, “it means stepping up.”
From Paris, Carter will head to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where this year’s theme “is the idea of the fourth industrial revolution, and how automation is combining with advances in manufacturing in big data to transform industries around the globe,” a topic close to Carter’s heart, the senior U.S. official said.
Carter will sit for a one-on-one session, on Friday, and then address the Afghanistan war, where the Taliban has roared back in regions long ago cleared by Americans. Carter will join a panel with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.
Carter, the first sitting defense secretary to visit the forum, will share billing with such notables U2’s Bono, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former Vice President Al Gore, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.
Last week, Carter laid out the Obama government’s latest counter-ISIS plans to 101st Airborne Division troops heading to Iraq and Kuwait from Fort Campbell, in Georgia. It’s the same unit that years ago spilled blood to take Mosul. The Iraqi city is one of two key ISIS-held cities the coalition will spend months preparing to invade, once again. This time will be different, Carter said, but the U.S. still must go to the fight.
“Our strategic approach is to help local, motivated and capable forces on the ground in every way that we can without taking their place,” he said Wednesday.
“The ISIL parent tumor has two centers: Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. ISIL has used its control of these cities and nearby territories as a power base from which to derive considerable financial resources, manpower, and ideological outreach. They constitute ISIL’s military, political, economic, and ideological centers of gravity,” Carter said. “That’s why our campaign plan’s map has got big arrows pointing at both Mosul and Raqqah.”
The U.S. will continue its air war while sending elite special operations teams on targeted missions and to advise local Syrian, Kurdish, and Iraqi forces, which must then hold their ground. It’s the Obama way, and Carter explained the president’s reasoning.
“That’s where you come in,” the secretary told the soldiers. “Frankly, I know the 101st has taken Mosul before, and you could do it again. We could deploy multiple brigades on the ground and arrive in force. But then it would likely become our fight, and our fight alone.”
On Thursday, Carter flew to Tampa to shine attention on the Obama administration’s selection of Gen. Joseph Votel to take over U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which oversees war operations in Syria, Iraq and across to Afghanistan. Votel was formerly head of U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, which oversees readiness for the U.S. military’s elite forces, and previously ran secretive kill-and-capture missions as head of Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.
“His background of every domain of warfare — air, land and sea — as well as special operations, give him the perspective and knowledge to lead the many soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen operating within this crucial command,” Carter said at a press briefing, after handing Votel the CENTCOM flag from retiring Gen. Lloyd Austin, the military’s way of symbolically transferring command.
Votel indicated he expected other countries to increase their special operations forces, or SOF, contributions.
“And that’s not just traditional SOF partners, the United Kingdom, Australia and so forth,” Carter said, jumping in. “This is an area where we’ve asked some of the states that are in the region to become more active.”
But the U.S. military will bear the brunt of the mission. Carter said troops and families associated with CENTCOM — not just special operations — should expect to see increased deployments. “With respect to particularly CENTCOM and particularly the counter-ISIL campaign, we are going to be doing more,” he said, with the reminder that the mission is to get other militaries to fight. “Now, our operational approach is not to try to substitute for local forces, but to enable them to win. And the reason for that is quite simple, which is that somebody has to keep the victory after the victory is won, and that has to be people who live there.”
The failure of previous attempts to train locals and leave Iraq and Afghanistan, however, is playing out in plain view for skeptical global publics. U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers turned and ran from ISIS fighters who swept into Syria, sparking debates over whether President Barack Obama should have tried harder to keep Americans in country instead of withdrawing nearly all U.S. forces in 2011. Initial public opinion to stay out of the region’s fight has turned following attacks in Paris and now mainland America. In the U.S., December polls show voters increasingly support sending conventional U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS head-on.