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U.S. Struggles To Turn The Tide In War Against IS

Washington (AFP) — After more than two months of air strikes, a U.S.-led coalition has prevented the fall of a northern Syrian town to Islamic State jihadists but is still struggling to halt the group’s advances on other fronts, experts say.

Since the air war on the IS militants began on August 8, the United States and its allies have few concrete successes to point to as the IS group has continued to roll ahead in western Iraq and tighten its grip elsewhere.

But U.S. officials insist it is too early to draw conclusions, and that a methodical effort will eventually bear fruit, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces build in strength.

“We’re in the first couple of minutes of the ball game,” said one senior officer at U.S. Central Command, which oversees the air campaign.

Senior U.S. administration officials and military commanders acknowledged in recent days the Iraqi army is months away from any sustained counter-offensive that could roll back the IS from its strongholds in Iraq’s western and northern provinces.

And despite ambitious plans for Iraq’s Sunni tribes to join the fight, most of the tribal leaders are sitting on the fence, waiting to see if the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi will break with the sectarian politics of his predecessor, officials said.

In the Syrian border town of Kobane, U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic that Kurdish fighters — backed by U.S. air raids — have fended off a relentless push by the IS militants to seize control of the area.

By keeping the town from falling — at least for the moment — the Americans avoided handing the IS a potential propaganda coup in a battle that has drawn intense media attention.

But the fight remains a stalemate and the Kurds’ desperate appeals for help — and Turkey’s cool response — have highlighted the deep divisions that plague the anti-IS coalition, experts said.

— Tenuous Coalition —

The U.S. strategy’s goals “cannot be realized because the interests of the different partners are diametrically opposed,” said French General Vincent Desportes, professor of strategy at Sciences-PO in Paris.

The fragile coalition offers a contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States was able to forge common ground with Arab and European allies, he said.

“In 1991 something was achieved because the Americans succeeded in aligning with the Gulf States,” he told AFP.

Turkey’s role has been a constant source of tension. And the United States has underestimated Ankara’s determination to avoid any action that would empower the Kurds, analysts say.

At the same time, Turkey and Arab governments are frustrated with Washington’s reluctance to directly confront the Syrian regime.

European allies have treaded cautiously as well, signing up for air strikes in Iraq while abstaining from bombing the IS in Syria.

The goals of the war are still only vaguely defined and coalition members cannot agree on them, said a French official.

“There are a series of political problems that have repercussions for the military plan,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

The initial objective of the war effort was to use air strikes to build a “firewall” that would stop the IS militants’ progress, buying the coalition time to rebuild the Iraqi army and eventually launch counter-attacks.

– Ground gained, after strikes –

But after more than 630 air raids in Syria and Iraq, the IS has continued to gain ground — particularly in western Anbar province — and threaten other key fronts in the north.

The United States “has found that the Iraqi military forces are even weaker than it is original assessments indicated …,” according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The scale of the air war has paled compared to the NATO intervention in Libya and some other campaigns, sparking accusations of a half-hearted effort.

Retired U.S. Air Force commander David Deptula complained the air campaign is nothing more than a “drizzle” and that only a “thunderstorm” will suffice.

To strike a genuine blow at the IS group, analysts say President Barack Obama will have to ramp up the air raids and send U.S. military advisers with local forces into combat, to ensure bombs hit their mark and that operations succeed.

U.S. officers say the pace of the strikes has been limited in partly because commanders want to avoid civilian casualties and because Iraqi forces are not yet able to stage large-scale assaults.

They cite a successful operation in August when a mostly Kurdish force took back control of Mosul dam as an encouraging sign, proving local troops were capable of complicated missions.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby insisted there will be more successes like the one at Mosul dam: “What I can tell you is we believe the strategy is working; that the policy is sound, the coalition continues to gain both momentum and strength.”

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

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U.S. Commander Who Transformed Special Forces Steps Down

By Dan De Luce

Washington (AFP) — The U.S. commander who helped place special operation forces at the forefront of the American military hung up his uniform, hailing a “golden age” for the elite commandos.

Admiral William McRaven, 58, rose to prominence for his role in overseeing the successful 2011 raid by Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden at his Pakistani compound.

But his influence inside military circles extends far beyond the storied nighttime operation that took out the Al-Qaeda mastermind.

Experts and fellow officers say he helped shape a new doctrine for commandos and a new approach in Washington to military power that emphasizes “small footprints” over large-scale deployments.

That approach calls for special operations forces to hit enemies in surprise strikes — but only when necessary — while devoting most of their effort to training local armies in a “global network” to tackle adversaries on their own.

– ‘Deepened our relationships’ –

At a ceremony on Thursday, marking McRaven’s retirement as head of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said the admiral had “deepened our relationships abroad, working more closely with allies and partners to better anticipate and counter threats.”

As proof of McRaven’s bid for a “global network,” Hagel cited special forces who had recently delivered humanitarian aid in the Philippines, assisted Peruvian forces in targeting senior figures of the Shining Path rebels, and advised Eastern European allies facing a resurgent Russia.

The commandos also were advising African armies to help counter Boko Haram militants and were on the ground in Iraq assisting Baghdad government troops confront Islamic State (IS) jihadists, Hagel said.

As chief of SOCOM since August 2011, McRaven has promoted the idea of building links with special forces in allied countries around the world.

He has set up an international “coordination center” at the command’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida, with officers from 10 nations working inside SOCOM’s offices.

During his tenure, McRaven also has overseen an expansion of SOCOM’s authority over commandos deployed in the field and secured additional funding and troops, at a time when the rest of the U.S. military has been forced to scale back under budget pressures.

– ‘Thrust into the arena’ –

In his farewell speech, McRaven said special operations forces (SOF) were once “relegated to a supporting role” to conventional troops.

But the attacks of September 11, 2001 “changed all of that, and we were thrust into the arena,” the four-star admiral said.

More than a decade later, “we are in the golden age of special operations, a time when our unique talents as special operators are in greatest demand.”

McRaven has said high-stakes raids like the one that killed Bin Laden represent only a small part of the work done by the 67,000-strong force.

Most of the command’s effort is focused on aiding commandos in other countries before threats grow into emergencies requiring U.S. intervention, according to McRaven.

But while his forces were advising foreign troops and police on everything from tactics to “animal husbandry,” he acknowledged in his speech that U.S. commandos were still engaged in “hard, tough fights” across the globe.

He cited a list of adversaries including IS extremists in the Middle East, Boko Haram, and al-Shebab in Africa and “barbaric elements” elsewhere.

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton has called special operations forces “the embodiment of smart power,” but skeptics argue the commandos are too often seen as a panacea for daunting threats facing the United States.

Night commando raids in Afghanistan have been hailed by American officers as crucial to weakening insurgents, but the civilian deaths caused by the operations have fueled deep resentment of the U.S. presence.

And the value of training and advising a local military force can be overstated, some analysts say.

– Useful ‘under particular conditions’ –

The approach works when the interests of a partner country match U.S. interests and goals, said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

But often times other governments do not share America’s policy goals, Biddle told AFP.

Building the capacity of other armies and forging an international network “can be useful tools under particular conditions,” he said.

“But those conditions may not be common enough for this to fit all the places where we’d like it to.”

AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown

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