Small Wars Journal

Obama Taps Star General To Build Syrian Rebel Army to Fight ISIS

Sun, 09/21/2014 - 3:55pm

Obama Taps Star General To Build Syrian Rebel Army to Fight ISIS by Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, The Daily Beast

As lawmakers prepared to take a risky and fateful vote on Obama’s plan to train and equip the Syrian rebels, the man who assured them it could be done was Gen. Michael Nagata, Obama’s point man for the mission to build an ISIS-killing army in Syria.

There are skeptics both inside and outside the government who doubt Obama’s new plan to arm the Syrian rebels can work. First of all, the administration has said for years that the moderate opposition can’t be a reliable partner for the United States in Syria. Only last month, Obama said that the rag-tag bunch of “former doctors, farmers, and pharmacists” could never win their civil war and the whole idea that arming them earlier would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.”

Then Obama made a complete reversal, announced that portions of the Free Syrian Army were now vetted enough to help the U.S. fight against ISIS, and called on Congress to vote to give him authority train and arm them. Congress went along, but only after hearing from Nagata, who briefed both House and Senate members and staffers in classified settings and told them how he would get it done. Those briefed said they were impressed by the General but remained concerned Obama’s plan was fatally flawed.

Nagata has experience in the area. U.S. military officials say Nagata helped devise much of U.S. special operations support for Jordan. These officials also say Nagata also has worked on plans with the CIA at the secret Jordanian base used to train up Syrian rebels under the still secret but well reported joint DOD-CIA program that began in 2012. Nagata is currently in charge of special operations command for Central Command, the military command that includes Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran…

Read on.


Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 1:06pm

Pat Lang has an interesting post:

<blockquote>SAS and American special forces were working along these battle zones as observers on the front lines as well as training Kurdish troops. Brig. Gen. Hikmet also said that discussions were under way to give them a dedicated base near the Kurdish city of Dohuk.

"The [US and UK] special forces have been so effective for us," Brig-Gen Helgurd Hikmet told the Telegraph. "Their special forces don't take any part in the fighting. They are only taking a role in training and teaching, and also as observers. As observers they go to the front line, but don't do any fighting."" Telegraph


Yes! Yes! De Oppresso Liber pl </blockquote>…


But the Syrian opposition altogether, how to think about that? What is the true purpose of supplying the Syrian opposition? Today, we say that it is the best way to get at IS/ISIS/ISIL as part of a larger strategy, but what is the endpoint of all of this? I keep thinking of the early 90's and how no one at the time could imagine that the actions taken by the early Clinton administration toward the anti-Saddam resistance (to counteract domestic humanitarian criticism of its policies) might lead to, except those that wanted to manipulate the system.

Stiffening up resistance forces to essentially keep the status quo from a terrible revisionist force is very different than being a revisionist force ourselves, even though the status quo is awful and cannot be otherwise. And yet, in a civil war, there must be some genuine support on two sides or it wouldn't be a civil war. So, in the end, despite the awfulness of saying this, we then are the revionist force.

*Since everyone is so into counterunconventional warfare these days, except, perhaps, there is good money in them thar cyber hills....well, it's no use having a vivid imagination, is it? Step three, four, five, six down the line gaming it out?

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 2:39pm

Who couldn't see this coming once DC analyst types, military or civilian, started caterwauling about ground troops?

<blockquote>The former CEO of Blackwater thinks he knows how to defeat the Islamic State: American mercenaries.
Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company notorious for its huge government contracts and violent and often reckless conduct in Iraq, wrote this week that, "If the Administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call," the U.S. government should "let the private sector finish the job."</blockquote> -Let's Get the Old Blackwater Team Back Together - Justine Drennan, FP

Foreign Policy via Real Clear Defense link

I wish people were as interested in this topic as when I post on other things around here.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 2:06pm

From Richard Bonin's <em>Arrows of the Night. Ahmad Chalabi and the Selling of the Iraq War</em>:

<blockquote>This was supposed to be a global initiative," Maguire explained,"the strategic manipulation of politics and public opinion--a public perception-forming tool--to put a face on a movement that was against Saddam and that would convince people in the West how heinous Saddam truly was. To say, 'Look what he's doing: gassed Kurds, people hanged, people thrown into the meat grinder, people tortured.' At the time, in May 1991, the image of Saddam Hussein lording it over a republic of fear had not yet settled in, Maguire noted, so it was necessary "to craft public opinion, primarily in Europe, where the people would be forced not to look away and to support an anti-Saddam opposition movement and to pressure their governments into supporting sanctions against Iraq."</blockquote>

The timing of a lot of this is interesting to me, in terms of the domestic American discussion on Assad. The book makes the point that the decision to finally deal with Iraqi opposition groups had its roots in DC politics, that because the first Bush administration looked bad, it wanted to look like it was doing something.

On Syria, Rice and Powers really should have down their homework but neither strikes me as the homework type, more of the crusading and enjoying, er, power types, but I am told again and again that this sort of psychological profiling is bad, except that everyone does it, and all the time too.

When did the "we must remove Assad" drumbeat start in the Western press? What year of the Bush administration did it sort of start to change? And, again, as Patrick Cockburn often writes, there is a lot of Saudi and other money to spill around DC and other national capitals.

The other interesting thing about the book I am quoting, and its relation to much of the discussion here, is how the US continues to believe in gradualism and a very CIA-DOD partial manipulation of events which almost always never goes as planned, a belief in applying covert pressure and then, somehow, magically, a friendly general or someone or other will take charge in hotspot du jour. Fascinating read, especially in this context.

Was it about 2008, the meetings of Syrian opposition in DC and London, and the rest? Again, the mindset of DC is fascinating. Self-preservation, money, ideology, lack of self-awareness, too much self-awareness but a desire to profit either way, politically or in other ways?

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 10/08/2014 - 1:39pm

<blockquote>Nagata has experience in the area. U.S. military officials say Nagata helped devise much of U.S. special operations support for Jordan. These officials also say Nagata also has worked on plans with the CIA at the secret Jordanian base used to train up Syrian rebels under the still secret but well reported joint DOD-CIA program that began in 2012. Nagata is currently in charge of special operations command for Central Command, the military command that includes Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran…</blockquote>

Compare the above quote from the linked article to the following assertions below:

<blockquote>In Syria, as civil demonstrations against Bashar al Assad became a rebellion and then a full-fledged civil war, the United States and the West had nothing to offer except words. International “Red Lines”, proved to be nothing more than posturing, adding to a long list of missed opportunities where what might have emerged as a moderate opposition with western support quickly became overrun and divided by fundamentalists.</blockquote>…

If you keep repeating something often enough, it becomes the conventional wisdom. LOL.

The nature of war zones is such that the strongest and most violent often prevail, others would tell us they don't like Al Q or ISIS but behind our backs share with them because they care more about Assad, and so on, yet, again and again, the assertions that if we had done this, that would happen FOR SURE.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 2:12pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I don't mind so much old school sites like this that are very early 2000s bloggy because you can post anonymously or send in articles without saying who you are, so you know you have to read carefully around here.

What I dislike is when people and sites try and use their credentials to state a point of view and create a sense of professionalism which is just a veneer in some ways. If you are an analyst for BAE or Caerus or whatever, just say that is what you are. What's the big deal? That doesn't mean you are wrong, necessarily.

Anyway, people can just look an author up so when that author says he or she is an analyst and doesn't specify for what institution or business, then it just looks weird.

I mean, you know, if you are a boots-on-the-guy proponent, then it might be nice to know the analyst once wrote a glowing article about Blackwater or whatever.

We have a restless, large, and expansionary Washington Consensus that cannot imagine any little thing in the world that doesn't need American attention because it means that they would have to cut back on what they do. Hey, it's human nature and everyone does it, but they really don't like being called on it. The majority prefer to have their CSPAN conferences and drone on and play their little games and meanwhile, the world just does what it does.

The tv guys? Who still watches tv anymore? I guess a lot of people and I guess it skews by age but the vast majority of people would do themselves a favor if they'd just ignore CNN, Fox, MSNBC, even CSPAN is very tough unless you are a critical consumer, everyone is peddling something. But at least CSPAN watching combined with reading might make one read or think more carefully. I don't know.

Bill M.

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 12:19pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


The media should encourage retired senior officers and former CIA officers that are promoting a particular strategy to disclose who they currently work for, or if they're promoting one of their books, or if it is strictly their opinion. If they work for a particular think tank or lobbyist group, then the media should explain its agenda. At least Americans listening would then have the option of considering the potential motivation of these talking heads. In many cases they'll be informed opinions by concerned Americans, in some cases there is an agenda that is more self-serving.

From my optic, I still haven't heard a good arguments on why we should support the resistance in Syria now or when it first stated. A lot of counterfactual arguments from liberal hawks like Hillary and neocons like McCain that sound compelling without further analysis, but their arguments are simply based on wishful thinking, not analysis of the known facts, of which there are few. The air campaign just started and we are already demonstrating our incompetence with our approach that has turned the so called Syrian moderates against us overnight. The same moderates that consider ISIS their brothers who made serious mistakes.

It is way past time to relook our "through, by and with approach" as our default approach to every security problem we face. There are certainly times when it is appropriate, but if someone did the math I suspect we would find that most cases where we used this approach we came up short or outright failed. In many cases the outcome wasn't that important, so it can be argued it wasn't a big deal. The counterargument is we don't have the treasure to waste, and in the end we're putting more arms in the black and gray markets for our adversaries to acquire. This isn't the pat to a more stable and secure world.

We generally do FID and UW in response to a crisis, which means we tend to jump in before we gain understanding of the local dynamics, and that means we to often decide to work with whoever will work with us, and those often aren't the people we want to see in charge in the future. The CIA is legend for throwing millions of dollars at unsavory characters due to poor tradecraft and a desire to take the easy route. We pay for it again and again, and never modernize our approach based on lessons from the past. Not everything can be foreseen, but in many cases we would have been smart to slow down our decision process. More often than not the situation will present opportunities as it develops allowing us to engage decisively, instead of blindly jumping in and before we realize it we're proverbial frog in the pan of water that is boiling.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/04/2014 - 2:30pm

Greg Scoblete of Real Clear World blog seems to have stopped posting in about July (did someone complain about his noninterventionist tendencies? Some donor or sponsor?) but before stopping posted this:

"The attack on Mosul from al-Qaeda elements fighting in Syria has led to the theft of U.S. equipment by Syrian rebels.

Weapons are fungible. Demands that we provide lethal assistance to Syria's opposition means eventually arming the very people we claim pose an existential threat to the United States."

ISIS and Al Q both.…

And of course the relationship of all of this to ISIS successes, in that we helped to provide a safe haven, along with Assad, the Russians, Iran, etc., given the context of a civil war. Afghanistan 1980s and AfPak 2.0. again....

From 2012, eh? The military doesn't do policy so one can't be upset, but the pressure from retired military working as analysts for defense companies--as a political forc--is game for intellectual questioning.

Create the very disorder we then are asked to stamp out. And a public primed for hysteria (witness the Ebola hysteria) buys into it. Well, here we are.

Inviolate state borders are a relatively recent phenomena in terms of the history of time. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 introduced the concept of sovereign state borders underwritten by treaties and a form of international law. As an observer of the debate on what to do about the Islamic State I can only crystal gaze that what could arise from the current churning in the Middle East are Nation States based on ethnicity or religious commonality. A Kurdish State, a Shia Iraq, an Islamic State(predominantly a Sunni Iraq/Syria state), a Alawite Shia Syria multi plural in the way that Lebanon is, is a possibility and would infact be suitable to Jordan and Israel as a buffer from the radicalism of the Islamic State. So would it be more useful for US military might to be deployed to maintain the status quo of the Islamic State but not to wipe it out and to restrict it to definable borders? It is better to isolate a cancer than to let it metastatize. Maybe in the long run curtailment of the US obsession to ensure Western style democracies in unsettled parts of the world may lead to a more stable peace and less Small Wars.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/25/2014 - 2:18pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

I forgot about this:

<blockquote>There is Operation Fast and Furious, a gun-running scheme that allegedly began as an elaborate sting operation to allow firearms straw purchasers to lead authorities to major gun traffickers. It ended up with the feds losing track of the guns, which were subsequently used in crimes—including murder—in both the United States and Mexico.</blockquote>

Of course, the nice thing is, given our partisan system, only the partisan aspects of this will be mentioned as opposed to the structural features and the similarity to foreign policy and proxy support.

Well, what am I telling you all that you don't already know. It must be like looking at a funhouse mirror for some of you in the military as you watch the civilian world. But the opposite happens too, when I listen to connected retired military on television as analysts, it's such a distorted world view presented. I used to think I was well educated because I watched CSPAN and read books by think tankers or popular public intellectuals, but I had no sense of the politics of it all.

Wonder how long the poll numbers will stay up for support against ISIS and how the rats will run from the ship once they start to drop, and by rats, I include some of the retired military consultant crew. Two types on the tv and both quite good theater, beefy seemingly no-nonsense types barking out inanities and shibboleths, and the more nuanced seeming crew, all dolled up with the latest intellectual fad catch phrases. Quite good theater, really. If I supported action, I'd be impressed. Quite a propaganda effort, really good theater.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/25/2014 - 1:37pm

Again, the military doesn't set policy and the following is Seymour Hersch (could be crazy, could be something) but:

<blockquote>In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)</blockquote>…

Yeah, I know, denials and unnamed sources, but honestly, how can anyone tell what is really going on?

This reminds me of the difference between the rhetoric and the reality of what actually happened on the ground in Afghanistan in the 80s, which, I mean, who knows? You know?

How do you vet these things in a war zone? It's like the claims that money given to third parties during our proxy war in Afghanistan in the 80s could be tracked. Once the money and weapons are out of our hands, we can't track anything, can we? I know some people will say this is an excuse not to do anything, but how can we combat ISIS or whatever we are calling it these days if we aren't honest about the ways in which their rise might be attributable, in part, to some of our own actions?

There is so much misinformation out there, claims and counterclaims, but how much of the rise of ISIS is do to state to state interactions? This is the problem with focusing on non-state actors and a problem with some of the 4GW literature, IMO.

Again, the military doesn't do policy but that is why I find the counterinsurgency literature (or, at least, a corner of it) lack of interest in South Asian insurgencies during the Cold War to be strangely fascinating as a general phenomenon.

Just as in Afghanistan in the 80s, we can't ensure loyalties or where money and weapons go, or even the desires of politicians or politicized officials to pump up their own efforts and do squash intelligence that doesn't go with the status quo.

MG Nagata must -- as must the United States -- understand the type of war that he/we are embarked upon.

This is not a war to destroy ISIS but, rather, and as in Afghanistan and Iraq, a war to achieve a much grander purpose.

Here from Dr. Robert Egnell, Visiting Associate Professor and Director of Teaching with the Security Studies Program, Georgetown University:

"One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes."

"When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end."…

Given that we are, in these matters, the "revolutionary actors," then re: COL Maxwell's suggestion (below and elsewhere) as to unconventional warfare, should MG Nagata look to such Cold War experts as Mao and Che Guevara in order to:

a. Overcome the resistance being provided by such entities as ISIS and

b. Achieve our strategic objective for Syria, Iraq and elsewhere (large-scale state and societal change -- of a kind/type which is much more favorable to the United States/the West --- now to be achieved through more-limited means)?

As Dr. Egnell notes above, the classic purpose of counterinsurgency is to preserve the existing political system and to restore law and order. Obviously this is not our -- or MG Nagata's -- objective in Syria. This explanation (that we are, instead, out to replace the current political and other systems in Syria) helping us to understand such things as why we have not, in the present crisis, allied ourselves with Assad.


Sun, 09/21/2014 - 11:46pm

Special Operations should involve operators who are generally O5 or E8 and below. If they fail, there is plausible denial. When a person of ambassador rank is the point man, as in Benghazi, he becomes a target. Now we see General Nagata as lead in the recruit, equip, and train operation directed at Syria. There is no plausible denial and the General now has a target on his back. This Administration and DOD would have been better off to say: The mission is to destroy ISIS. After that, they need to shut up.

The following from a July 7th article by Stathis Kalyvas in the Washington Post:

" ... if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor. These groups project a goal of radical political and social change ..."

"They tend to prevail over their less effectively organized insurgent rivals ... "

"Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity."

" In that respect, we have much to learn from revisiting the action and strategy of the last generation of insurgent revolutionary actors, those of the Cold War."…

During the Cold War, our rivals the former Soviet Union and China sought to achieve radical political and social change (along communist lines) in other states and societies. The United States/the West, for their part, sought to "contain" this activity. In this regard, the manner in which we sought to contain our rivals might include the attempt to install our own political, economic and social models instead.

Post-the Cold War, it has been the United States/the West that has moved out smartly to achieve radical political and social change in other states and societies; in this case, along modern western lines. (Our foreign policy of "engagement and enlargement," for example, declaring this is no uncertain terms.) Today, however, we find it is other states and societies (for example, certain of those in the Middle East, Russia, and elsewhere) who have sought to contain the cultural expansion of the United States/the West. In this regard, these folks, also, have used the appeal of other (more familiar?) political, economic and/or social models.

Given that today, it would seem, the shoe is on the other foot so-to-speak

("We" are the one's now trying to radically change the political, economic and social structure of other states and societies; "they" are trying to fight back -- and "contain" us -- using, for example, the appeal of earlier models.)

Given this fact, how might we, and indeed GEN Nagata, "learn from revisiting the action and strategy of the last generation of insurgent revolutionary actors, those of the Cold War?"

Bill M.

Tue, 09/23/2014 - 5:45pm

In reply to by Bill M.

An Arab and western coalition bombing extremists is an important step in the conflict against Islamic extremism, but if it isn't coordinated with ground forces it won't have much of an impact. According to sources in Syria Assad was notified, which only makes sense from a force protection aspect. Shoot at our planes and we'll crush you. Can't help but wonder if we and the Arab coalition would be willing to form a temporary alliance with the devil to crush ISIL? Mao and the Chinese Nationalists formed a temporary alliance to fight the Japanese, and then went back to killing each other. Initial reports are that the targeting had minimal impact on ISIL because they already dispersed and moved into private homes effectively neutralizing air power. When you have that many in the coalition the probability of the designated targets being leaked is high, so we're spending a lot of money on high end munitions to accomplish what? Strategic communications? Overall I remain hopeful we will take decisive action when the conditions are set, but will also remain suspect unless there is more to the strategy.

Bill M.

Mon, 09/22/2014 - 9:12pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Mike is certainly a good choice to lead this, but his personal competence and aggression will mean little if he is hamstrung by his superiors. Furthermore, I think we should take pause if we think a U.S. sponsored UW campaign will have decisive results due to the complicated political and social issues in Syria. Many states are conducting UW in Syria, so are we just going to extend the suffering by providing arms, training, and advise to a mere 5,000 foot soldiers has part of an uncoordinated whole? Are we prepared to support stability operations when Assad eventually falls? I have little faith we have the skill or will to help orchestrate the development of a follow on government, and our rules of engagement for post war consolidation of political power are counter productive for this type of operation. FSA will not, and cannot, solely focus on ISIS, they'll have to defend themselves against Assad also. Does this then open us up to a war with Hezbollah? No issue if we do, but we have to be prepared for that fight also. Hopefully we're planning to support the UW effort with air strikes that the FSA will be postured to exploit, then we can probably make relatively quick work of the current conflict, but and this but is important, there will be a conflict after this one that could be just as nasty. Hopefully we actually thought this one through for a change and that this operation will relieve the human suffering and advance our national interests in the region. If we just provide arms, training, and advice I suspect it will continue to be long drawn out bloody affair where little will be accomplished.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 09/21/2014 - 6:07pm

It is about time. A couple of comments.

First, Mike is the first career Special Forces officer who has been given overall command of an operation in the Middle East/South Asia since 9-11. There probably no one better qualified from any branch to do this. Mike is arguably the best UW practitioner we have in the force today.

Second, I hope that his mission is not only a train and equip program but that he is allowed to orchestrate a campaign in Syria that is based on unconventional warfare. Congressmen should be demanding a comprehensive UW campaign based on this excerpt:

QUOTE “They can show you lots of information on who they trained, where they came from and what kind of gear we gave them,” one lawmaker told The Daily Beast about the CIA training program. “But they can’t tell you what happens to them once they cross the border into Syria.” This lawmaker said this is because Obama has opposed embedding any U.S. personnel inside the opposition units once they are trained. “This is like throwing a bunch of guns over the border and saying, ‘Good Luck.’” END QUOTE

If they do that and a comprehensive UW campaign turns out to not be feasible I am sure that Mike will so inform the leadership. But a train and equip program is insufficient to accomplish our strategic objectives.