Ash Carter unveils a broader, more robust campaign to defeat ISIS

Published 14 January 2016

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that 2016 will be the year the American-led coalition attacks ISIS in its strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul, in what may be the Obama administration’s last chance to inflict a lasting defeat on the Islamist group. In a speech on Wednesday, Carter said that he had “big arrows” pointing at the Syrian and Iraqi cities that constitute Isis’s “center of gravity.”

The campaign against ISIS will expand beyond these countries, Carter said, indicating that the drone campaigns conducted against militants in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan will target the militant group in other countries, most likely in north and west Africa.

If the administration launches a concerted push on Raqqa, it would signal a new phase of the war against ISIS, in two respects: it will be a shift from the “Iraq first” approach which has guided the administration to this point, and it may well feature direct U.S. involvement in combat.

CBS News reports that Carter stressed that theexpanded efforts to target ISIS commanders will continue in 2016. This is indicated by the recently established “expeditionary” effort, which consists of special-operations forces launching operations from “hubs” established in several countries, similar to the secretive raiding the Joint Special Operations Command conducted in Iraq.

“We will begin by collapsing ISIL’s control over both of these cities and then engage in elimination operations through other territories ISIL holds in Iraq and Syria,” Carter told soldiers of the 101st airborne division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky as they prepare to deploy, once again, to Iraq.

The 101st is being deployed to Iraq to help the Iraqi army take Mosul from ISIS.

Carter warned the 101st that Mosul would be a difficult battle, particularly as a dug-in ISIS force challenges an Iraqi army with persistent logistics difficulties fighting far from Baghdad. Carter offered some specificity about the campaign plan itself, saying the Kurdish peshmerga would attack from the north while the Iraqi army advanced from the south.

“I don’t need to tell you how complex a city like Mosul can be, and I’m not about to tell you that it’s your job to keep everyone working together when the fighting is done,” he said.

Carter suggested that the fight for Raqqa will be conducted by proxy local forces with the support of U.S. special operations forces on the ground and U.S. combat aircraft.

Carter said these local fighters — a mix of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen — had shown recent battlefield successes along the Turkish border and at the Tishreen dam. Carter disclosed that they had help from U.S. special operations forces.

CBS News notes that the United States last fall shifted to a strategy of supporting existing forces after its efforts at cultivating a new Syrian rebel army failed.

Carter said that the special-operations forces would be “small” in number but powerful in effect, as they have “already” cultivated “local, motivated and capable partners” in Syria. Carter also said they would bring the “full might of America’s airstrikes” against ISIS, indicating that they may call in and spot for airstrikes, a step Obama has thus far resisted.

Carter did, however, warn against overly “Americanizing” the fight.

“Going in alone would also Americanize the conflict, giving Isil the chance to call it a foreign occupation, convincing those who are resisting Isil to fight us instead, and feeding the anti-western story Isil has been pushing all along as it tries to inspire acts of terror around the world,” Carter said.

“We can’t ignore this fight, but we can’t win it entirely from the outside-in.”

But the next fight, Carter said, would extend beyond Iraq and Syria, and require a “flexible and nimble response” which will leverage the existing global architecture of U.S. counter-terrorism — primarily employing drone strikes and commando raids in far-flung areas — in places ISIS is expanding, such as North Africa, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

“An example of this network in action was our 13 November strike on Abu Nabil, where assets from several locations converged to successfully kill this Isis leader in Libya,” Carter said.