By: Joseph Miller
August 22, 2014
On Wednesday, the White House leaked a classified special forces operation to rescue American hostages in Syria. The reason: political cover. The cost: so far, unknown.
But this much, we know: The politicized leak of this operation cut through the fog of war to let our enemies know exactly what happened that day in the desert, and because of that, future attempts to free American hostages will be more difficult to plan, farther between, and more dangerous to carry out.
On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby confirmed reports of the U.S. military’s failed clandestine hostage rescue operation in Syria. The operation was designed to rescue a number of Western hostages, including American journalist James Foley, that were being held by Islamic State terrorists in Syria. Details of the failed raid were leaked by senior White House officials earlier that day after the Obama administration came under intense scrutiny about what actions it had taken to free Foley following, who was beheaded . The leak was designed to provide political cover for President Barack Obama, who has been taking fire from the press for failing to take more decisive action against the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria.
The operation involved an extremely large number of U.S. special operations forces moving over long distances. It has been described as the largest U.S. hostage rescue operation undertaken since the famed raid on the Son Tay prison camp in Vietnam – meaning it was larger in scope than the mission to free the U.S. hostages being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1980.
Unfortunately, the parallels between this operation and the Son Tay raid did not stop at the size and scope of the mission: Just as in Son Tay, the hostage rescue force arrived only to find that the hostages were not there.
When the hostage rescue force arrived at the target location in Syria, they encountered a handful of fighters on the ground, which they quickly neutralized. As has been previously reported, one U.S. helicopter pilot transporting the rescue force suffered a gunshot wound during the operation. He completed the entire mission before informing anyone that he had been shot. It was an act of heroism that would have gone unknown before yesterday’s leak.
Following the mission, it was determined that the Islamic State did not know that it was the United States that had conducted the raid. This was confirmed Wednesday by media outlets, who quoted the leaker saying the “[Islamic State] did not know who they were fighting that night, and we assess Syria did not know.”
As such, the decision was made to maintain absolute secrecy in the event that hostages could be located again, and another rescue operation could be undertaken. After Wednesday’s leak by the White House, this seems highly unlikely. The Islamic State is now aware that the United States is tracking the whereabouts of the Western hostages, and that the U.S. has shown a willingness to take military action to free them. They will likely increase their operational and communication security postures in order to prevent a repeat operation.
Wednesday’s selfish, politically motivated leak has reduced the chances for a successful second rescue attempt, and has likely increased the risk to the lives of the hostages still in the Islamic State’s possession. For that, someone should be fired.
I wish I was surprised by the decision to leak information that would endanger the lives of additional hostages in order to provide the administration with a few political points, but I am not. This is par for the course for an administration that is more concerned with domestic politics and opinion polling than they are with taking the actions necessary to safeguard American national security.
As I have predicted for several months in pieces published here at The Daily Caller, the Islamic State has grown in size and strength, and has declared the creation of an Islamic caliphate under the governance of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who now goes by the name Caliph Ibrahim. The area currently under the control of the Islamic State includes large sections of territory in Iraq and Syria. It is the largest territory ever to be controlled by a terrorist organization. Every day, the area under the control of the Islamic State more closely resembles pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Every day the U.S. waits, the larger the commitment to destroy the Islamic State will be. The threat to the United States is real, as the Islamic State has both the intent and the capabilities to attack the U.S. homeland.
For three years, the Obama administration has sat idly by while the Islamic State grew in size and strength across the Iraqi border in neighboring Syria. In that time, Syria has become a failed state, which has allowed the Islamic State to thrive while 160,000 Syrians have been killed. Syria remains the heart of the problem. Iraq is just one of its symptoms.
But it was not until the Islamic State began to overrun Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, and began the systematic genocide of Yazidi tribesmen, women, and children, that the Obama administration became concerned enough to take action. Obama first ordered the U.S. military to drop humanitarian relief supplies on top of Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq, where thousands of Yazidis were seeking refuge from Islamic State militants. Then, the mission was expanded to include U.S. airstrikes to defend the Kurdish City of Irbil and U.S. personnel stationed there.
The objective of the overall U.S. mission remains unclear. U.S. military commanders recognize the threat posed by the Islamic State, and have requested permission to target the group more broadly, but the administration is wavering.
When White House national security staffers do see a proposal that they like from either the U.S. military or intelligence community to take action, they will take it to the president or the responsible authority for action. Normally, concepts of operations are designed to achieve policy goals stipulated by the White House. What we have here is the opposite: something we call “policy by concept of operations.” Indeed, White House staffers cherry picking individual courses of action devoid of a strategy evoke images of President Lyndon Johnson selecting bombing targets in Vietnam.
In the absence of any discernible policy, commanders and intelligence community executives are coming up with concepts that they think should be executed based on their professional experience and judgment — they can only hope that the political operatives at the White House concur. This is not how national security decision-making should be conducted, and it is how we ended up with the current mission in Iraq: limited airstrikes and humanitarian air drops in a localized area, with no connection to a larger strategy or goal because for the White House, it does not matter. For them, it’s politics. As long as they are doing something, that’s all that matters.
During the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain charged that then-Sen. Barack Obama “didn’t know the difference between a tactic and a strategy.” The current U.S. military mission in Iraq is evidence that McCain was right. Airstrikes by themselves without a larger goal or objective are a tactic, not a strategy. What are we trying to achieve? The threat posed by the Islamic State far exceeds the localized conflict taking place in northern Iraq, on which the administration has been hyper focused. But few in the administration seems to either understand or care. It’s a reflection of the lack of experience, over-politicization of national security matters, and trying to control everything at the White House.
At this time, the Obama administration still has no workable strategy or policy for the Syrian civil war or for the growing threat posed by the Islamic State. The White House is in strategic paralysis and seems unable to make a decision as to what the U.S. should do. Obama has publicly stated his reluctance to take on a more expansive U.S. military operation for political and economic reasons, but the current problem is not entirely of his making: Obama is only able to make the decisions that his staff bring to him for consideration. From dangerous leaks to failed policies in the Middle East, the White House is a mess from the bottom, all the way to the top.
Joseph Miller is the pen name for a ranking Department of Defense official with a background in U.S. special operations and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked in strategic planning.