The conflict against the Islamic State is casting Syria as the newest test of America’s attempt to redefine what “winning” looks like in the war against terror.
The lesson from the long and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that the United States could approach “winning” only so long as it kept large numbers of forces on the ground. But maintaining those troop levels involved unsustainable costs – economically, politically, and militarily.
More recently, President Obama had tried walking away from the region, but in the face of a humanitarian crisis in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, that approach, too, proved unsustainable.
“For a while, the policy was ‘Just Say No,’ but they couldn’t do it,” says Stephen Biddle, a political scientist at George Washington University.
Now, Syria is emerging as a laboratory for a “good enough” approach in places where – as with the fight against the Islamic State – American interests are real but limited. The idea is to start small and build on what works.
Mr. Obama’s goal is to turn the Islamic State campaign “over to the next president in a way that’s sustainable,” says Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015, and now senior adviser for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund.
The Islamic State, he says, will remain “a chronic problem, but is it a problem that we can live with for a while?”
If the answer is yes, that sort of sustainability may be what amounts to “winning” for the US in many of its foreign policy challenges, where the best path is one between full-scale war and doing nothing.
“They’re trying to find out what this model is,” says Paul Scharre, who worked as a policy adviser in the Pentagon from 2008 to 2013, “and come up with a new approach that we haven’t had before.”
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Soon after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the number of US troops on the ground in Syria would grow from 50 to 600, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona weighed in: This was “the kind of grudging incrementalism that rarely wins wars, but could certainly lose one.”
But behind the scenes in background briefings, Defense officials pushed back. The Pentagon’s approach in Syria, put forward by Secretary Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, was not incrementalism, they argued, but rather a “step-by-step campaign.”
“As we’ve pushed out and built on our successes, we’re just reevaluating what different means we might need to take things to the next step,” said a senior Defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And that’s where I think ‘step-by-step’ differs from ‘incrementalism,’ which carries a pejorative tone.”
That may sound like a distinction without much of a difference, but for a Pentagon tasked with carving out achievable goals in a war where they have repeatedly proven elusive, the distinction is crucial. The approach is deliberate, not reactive.
“Every single time we’ve gone to the White House, we’ve gotten what we’ve asked for,” the senior defense official noted.
From his years as a Pentagon technocrat, Carter is clearly aware of both the White House’s marching orders and the Department of Defense’s limitations. “The bottom line is this: We can’t ignore this fight, but we also can’t win it entirely from the outside in,” he recently told lawmakers.
The approach involves changing the way the Pentagon – and America at large – has thought about war. The US military has long excelled at defining its objectives in negative terms, says Mr. Scharre, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Back in 2001, “We went in thinking, ‘We don’t want Saddam; we don’t want Al Qaeda.”
That has been the case with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) as well. “We want to defeat ISIS, but what comes in its place?”
And, when the US has figured that out, the question becomes how to make it sustainable. “That might involve small numbers of US military personnel” for some period of time, says Scharre.
“I think there’s been a consensus across the political aisle that there is sort of a ‘good enough,’ ” says John Deni, professor of national security studies at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.
The key is to “better define what we’re doing at the outset, and lower expectations – be a little bit more grounded in what we can achieve,” he says. “I think the Obama administration has been ruthlessly realistic in these sorts of problems.”
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This has involved developing a sliding scale for US troop involvement. If an approach proves effective, add more. If it doesn’t, pull back.
The White House “has certainly shown that it’s capable of learning, doubling down on what works, and moving away from what doesn’t,” adds Scharre.
Initially, the Defense Department spent $500 million on a training program for so-called moderate Syrian rebels. The US general in charge later acknowledged to Congress that the program had produced only “four or five” anti-Islamic State fighters.
So the Pentagon revamped the program with a contingent of 50 US Special Operations Forces to identify rebel groups that could benefit from more US aid and mentoring.
These Special Operations troops “proved extremely valuable to both identifying and then enabling local forces of the kind that were successful,” Carter told the Monitor on a trip to Stuttgart, Germany, this month to meet with his anti-ISIS coalition.
Today, other countries “are sending special forces doing the exact same thing.”
A large part of the new Special Operations mission, he adds, involves serving as liaisons for these allied troops.
“I’ve asked Gulf countries and European members to do more in Syria, and this is our way of providing the liaison and the people who will enable them, in turn, to make their contribution,” Carter says. “We want to build on success – that’s the reason, that’s our approach.”
The 50 US Special Forces on the ground have also allowed the US to increase the pace of its airstrikes, “because we have better intelligence that allows us to be more effective from the air,” Carter explains. “You can’t drop more bombs than there are targets.”
It is an approach that, in short, has allowed the US military to take advantage of its “competitive advantage,” in the region, Carter told lawmakers last month.
A larger contingent of US ground forces “would be ceding our competitive advantage of special forces, mobility, and firepower, instead fighting on the enemies’ terms,” he said. Local populations have, in the past, “responded violently” to larger-scale ground combat.
In the long term, the key is “securing and governing the territory recaptured, which in the end must be done by local forces.”
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To do this, these local forces need training. As a result, a key question in Obama’s “good enough” strategy has become: “How do I use the military tool in a way that doesn’t commit the US to these prolonged occupations?” says Scharre. “How do we get US boots on the ground without enmeshing it in a quagmire?”
On this question, Obama has drawn a fairly clear line for his administration.
“When it comes to drone strikes or Special Operations raids, the president is very willing to use military force. He’s willing to put boots on the ground to nab or kill terrorist leaders when it doesn’t involve staying. When it comes to people staying on the ground, even in an advising capacity, there’s been hesitation,” Scharre adds.
There is some reason for this. “What everybody wants is real but limited means for pursuing real but limited interests,” Dr. Biddle of George Washington University notes.
The problem is the US and its partner countries don’t often have the same priorities, he says.
What looks to the US “like a swell way to deal with ISIS – to train, advise, equip and professionalize the Iraqi Army – looks dangerous to everybody else.” To the Shiite elite – many of whom have their own militias – the Iraqi Army represents “a constant threat of political violence.”
For Obama, the key is for the US not to have unrealistic expectations of its partners on the ground, and not to allow itself to be drawn into a conflict where the size of the force exceeds the interests the US has at stake.
“I suspect that the White House looks at this 300 SOF [Special Operations Forces] as a way of not sending 25,000 more troops.” It sees “small commitments as a way to avert much larger sacrifice and investment.”
Some military analysts suggest the model could be pushed further.
Scharre proposes a dozen-strong US Special Forces A-team closer to the front lines, alongside a battalion of several hundred local forces – advising, coordinating US air power, and relaying intelligence to provide “real-time” help on the fly.
Beyond that, US troops help provide a “backbone” for local forces. “Morale frankly matters,” Scharre adds, and US forces, even in small numbers, can help with that. “You know if you have a US [military] adviser with you, he comes with a US Air Force behind him. He’s got a radio and he can call up an F-16. That’s pretty cool.”
For now, having US troop advisers on the ground helps mitigate the worst sectarian influences.
As the drumbeat begins in the looming the fight to retake Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, the even larger challenge will be strategic patience.
“It’s tough, because in America we want quick wins – beat ISIS and we can go home,” Scharre says. But the timeline in which the US and its Iraq partners roll back ISIS territory isn’t the point. “What really matters is who takes the territory back – and how.”
The hope for the Obama administration is that, with that patience, “good enough” can become good.