President Barack Obama’s “no boots on the ground” policy in the fight against the Islamic State took another hit recently when U.S. Army Delta Force special operations troops killed Abu Sayyaf, 11 other Islamic State fighters and captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf deep in Eastern Syria.
Abu Sayyaf was a senior leader for the Islamic State whose roles included overseeing illicit oil and gas operations. His wife, Umm, is reported to have knowledge of Islamic State human trafficking operations, and is said to be in custody for questioning.
The late night raid on Sayyaf also led to the rescue of a young Yezidi woman who is reported to have been held as a slave by the couple.
In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a protester holds a placard depicting U.S. President Barack Obama during a demonstration in Kafr Nabil town, Idlib province, northern Syria, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. Rebel-on-rebel fighting between an al-Qaida-linked group and an array of more moderate and ultraconservative Islamists has killed nearly 500 people over the past week in northern Syria, an activist group said Friday, in the most serious bout of violence among opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad since the civil war began. The Arabic on the poster is an acronym meaning, "the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant." (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)
It was reported that no Americans were killed or injured in the “old school fire-fight,” and that a “treasure trove” of intelligence materials, such as cell phones, laptops and documents were recovered.
Short term good news preceding long term questions.
1. When did “no boots on the ground” turn into “boots on the ground when we want them?”
Any military person ever trained for combat knows “no boots on the ground” is a lie if you have an air campaign. There is no way airstrikes can be accurate or effective without ground assets confirming the quality of targets. We have had boots on the ground since the very first air strike. These military or clandestine members are at risk and are at the mercy of local handlers and other foreign national “allies.” How will we protect them if things go bad?
President Obama has been adamant that the 3,000 or so U.S. forces currently in Iraq are all in “non-combat” roles, training and advising Iraqi Security Forces. At no time did the president indicate missions such as the one just executed would take place. Is this a new phase in the strategic fight against the Islamic State, or a one-time deal to disrupt their operations and send a message?
2. Why was Abu Sayyaf killed and his wife taken alive?
White House officials indicated that the mission objective was to “capture” Abu Sayyaf, yet he was killed in a reported firefight, and his wife taken alive as a source of intelligence. If the objective was to take him alive, why weren’t sophisticated non-lethal methods used to do so? Stunning and incapacitating targets is very possible, but under Obama these methods seem forgotten when trying to extract high level bad guys. Remember Osama bin Laden?
Obama’s drone war is still hot and heavy, killing even U.S. citizens rather than capturing them. Keeping Sayyaf’s wife alive seems the second best scenario, but what could she know compared with her husband?
3. What is the lawful status of Umm Sayyaf?
Depending on Umm Sayyaf’s lawful status, she must either be treated as a non-combatant (protected person), or an unlawful combatant. If the former, she must be released unless accused of war crimes. If the latter, where will she be held and how will she be treated?
Unlawful combatants are not entitled to extra-legal privileges or the rights of a Prisoner of War. Yet, when the U.S. military detention facility opened at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, my former boss, Lt. Col. William Cline, then Camp X-Ray commandant, was told by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that we would treat the detainees within the “spirit” of the Geneva Conventions.
This is a complex matter, as President Obama declared the Global War on Terror over in 2013, and must consider most detainees held at Gitmo victims as he seeks to release them.
Under what authority is Umm Sayyaf being detained and what methods are being used to extract information from her?
4. Are we at war with the Islamic State?
If we are at war, why aren’t we playing to win? Pussy-footing around with late night raids while declaring we have a “no boots on the ground” policy is a superficial way to go about defeating the enemy.
To actually win a war one needs to eliminate the enemy and secure territory. Delta Force is great, but the bigger picture for victory must include heavy ground troops such as the U.S. Marines and the Army. Pecking away at this leader or that one only excites the younger leaders, who are more than eager to take their place, and if martyred, so much the better.
All of these questions are important going forward because laws and rules and policies help guide us in our actions. If our actions seem to contradict our principles then we lose status and prestige not just amongst our enemies, but with our allies as well.
If our friends can’t count on us to follow our own rules and those of the group we agreed to be a part of, namely the international coalition called the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, then how are they to trust our motives and commitment?
Already our trust with our friends in the Middle East has waned, as evidenced by four of six Arab leaders bowing out of a recent Middle East summit held by the president at Camp David, Maryland. A former high ranking Saudi Arabian minister spoke of their friendship with the United States in the past-tense prior to the meeting. The new Saudi King Salman pulled out of attending the meeting just days after confirming his attendance. Leaders of other Gulf States quickly followed.
Combine this with a more aggressive approach to closing down Gitmo and it seems we have reached a point of total confusion over what exactly we are doing in the world today and why.
If we’re closing Gitmo, why are we taking fresh detainees?
If the War on Terror is over, why are we killing Islamists face-to-face in deliberate operations?
Only a robust physical presence on the ground can secure safety and peace. Raids and airstrikes are nice for harassment and disruption, but for total defeat it will take a completely different approach. Killing one man and taking his wife prisoner is a sound bite approach to what needs to be a dissertation.
Fighting an enemy that does not value even their own lives means that to win we must kill them all or remove their ability and will to kill us. We can’t accomplish that with bombs and Delta Force alone.
Montgomery Granger is a three-times mobilized U.S. Army major (Ret.) and author of "Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior." Amazon, Blog, Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter: @mjgranger1
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