TAMPA, FLORIDA – This is the home of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command – the two entities responsible for U.S. military activities in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Persian Gulf States and Southwest Asia – including Afghanistan. Many of those I have covered for Fox News since 9/11/01 are now stationed here. And like I am, many of them are stunned by what the Obama administration is – and isn’t – doing in the Land Between the Rivers.
For months, CENTCOM and SOCOM intelligence officers have been reporting on the dangers posed by Sunni militants who call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
According to those I have spoken with here and others now deployed in the region, these reports included warnings that ISIL intended to increase launch “conventional offensive attacks” on Mosul and other Sunni cities in Iraq. Apparently these forecasts went unnoticed by the Obama “national security team” in Washington.
Now, after weeks of golfing, fund-raising and dithering, our incumbent commander-in-chief has “decided” to act – by emulating President John F. Kennedy’s decision to send a handful of “advisors” to Vietnam in 1962.
Then, as now, the administration claimed “Green Berets” – fewer than 1,000 – were not “a combat force” and would simply “advise and train” but not “engage in hostilities.” Within a year the number grew to more than 15,000.
After JFK was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson became president, the number of Americans committed to the fight increased every year of his tenure. By 1968, when I reported to 2nd Platoon, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, there were nearly 550,000 American troops in Vietnam and U.S. forces were taking 284 killed and wounded every day. Incremental escalation did not work then – and it won’t today.
There are of course many differences between what we endured in Vietnam and what’s now happening in Iraq. But in Washington the O-Team appears to be ignorant of what was learned in Southeast Asia between 1962 and 1975.
One of the most enduring lessons of Vietnam should be the imperative: deny an enemy a “safe haven.” We weren’t allowed to pursue North Vietnamese Army units across the DMZ – and my Marines suffered and died accordingly, despite massive airstrikes on the other side of the porous border.
In his press conference on June 19, Mr. Obama actually said we must “deny terrorists safe-havens.” But he’s already ruled out U.S. raids and air strikes in Syria. These are mutually exclusive requirements given that the ISIL roams at will through a wide swath of Syria from Aleppo, east to the Iraqi border. The stated goals of ISIL are to establish a strict Sunni-controlled Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean coast (the Levant), south through northern and central Iraq – and to attack the U.S. homeland. But U.S. objectives in the region are hardly clear.
Mr. Obama promises “limited, targeted military action” if it becomes “necessary.” He also threatens to throw money at the problem – $5 billion for a “Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund” to “train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”
The president’s hollow, nebulous rhetoric must have the ISIL laughing in their ghutrahs. Congress is unlikely to appropriate the money. Sheikh Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, head of ISIL, claims he already has more than $4 billion in “donations,” looted cash, gold, oil and captured U.S. equipment. And he’s smart enough to avoid communicating in ways that make other warlords vulnerable to Hellfire missile attacks from U.S. MQ-9 Reapers.
In addition to uncertain aims and mixed messages, few in Washington appear to grasp what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. U.S. officials, members of Congress and media “experts” routinely talk about “the ISIL insurgency.” The fight in Iraq sin’t an insurgency, it’s a sectarian civil war – pitting Sunni jihadis against Al Maliki’s Shiite government. Worse, the potentates on the Potomac are completely wrong about the insidious role of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
At least four IRGC Quds Force (Special Operations) battalions have already been committed with the mission of protecting Iran’s interests in Iraq: stiffening the spine of the Shiite ISF; rescuing Iranian nationals at risk of being murdered by ISIS; and re-opening the now blocked land logistics route from the Iran/Iraq border to Syria.
The IRGC is not having an easy go of it. At least a dozen Iranians have already fallen into the sanguinary hands of ISIL. Maliki’s ISF has been crippled by desertions. The 15,000+ “Shiite Militiamen” who responded to Iraq’s senior cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s appeal for volunteers showed up at ISF bases with their AK-47s and little else, creating a logistics nightmare. And now, ISIL units have seized positions on highway and rail crossings of the Euphrates River in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Qaim – forcing Tehran to air-deliver support for al Assad in Damascus and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The ISIL battle plan calls for them seize as much territory as possible before Ramadan starts on June 28. At that point, expect a stalemate along sectarian “frontlines.” An officer here observes, “Once the Ramadan fast begins, big military maneuvers stop but suicide bombers and IED makers stay in business…” and “Ramadan won’t deter those with the mission of capturing American hostages.”
Secretary of State Kerry is now in Baghdad where Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has been asked to step down. Here’s some free advice, John:
1. Get as many American citizens out of Iraq right now so we don’t have American hostages or a repeat of Saigon, 1975.
2. Don’t agree to putting American military personnel, “advisers” or otherwise, outside U.S. Diplomatic facilities without a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) from Maliki or his successor.
3. Don’t agree to U.S. airstrikes in Iraq or Syria. Any of the “old hands” out there will tell you we stop all attacks during Ramadan unless a U.S. unit is being overrun.
4. Before meeting again with the Iranians, think of your legacy John. You denigrated those of us who fought in Vietnam. You’re already tainted by the “Nero Fiddled – Obama Diddled” legacy. Avoid “dialogue” with the Iranians on what’s happening in Iraq. They are not our friends. Besides, you’re going to have enough on your plate trying to explain the “good deal” you worked out with Tehran on their nuclear weapons.
Lt Col Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. North is the founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization providing college scholarships to the children of military personnel killed in the line of duty and author of the new nationwide bestseller, "Counterfeit Lies," a novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North.