The path to victory is clear. The only question is what it will take to finally take that path

Embedded Advisors are Key to winning against the Islamic State

By —— Bio and Archives--May 29, 2015

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“I saw the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. I saw the war through the eyes of villagers that I lived with. I saw the war through the eyes of Vietnamese soldiers and Marines there weren’t there on one-year tours, but were there for the duration.  I saw the war from the Delta to the DMZ. I saw the war from Cambodia to the coastal plains in the east. And it was a totally different perspective than I was hearing from my counterparts.”
– Gen. Anthony Zinni, speaking of his tour-of-duty as an Adviser in Vietnam


After the Islamic State seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi (the capital of the critical Anbar Province), last week, those lobbying for complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Syria began speaking out more forcefully.

Their argument is encapsulated by the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson in his recent article about the future of U.S. involvement after Ramadi: “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many troops [Barack Obama] sends back to Iraq or whether their footwear happens to touch the ground…  Further escalating the U.S. military role, I would argue, will almost surely lead to a quagmire that makes us no more secure. If the choice is go big or go home, we should pick the latter.” 

Fortunately, we do have another option between “going big” or “going home” and clear path to victory: A substantial advisory effort, closely embedded with Iraqi security forces (Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Army and Police forces) supported by a substantial increase in American airpower.

My own background and experiences as an adviser to Afghan National Security Forces have provided unique insights. First, I deployed for a year to Kandahar Province, then I became the senior U.S. military adviser to Helmand Province (from 2007-2008, before U.S. Marines replaced my command in Helmand).

We not only trained and equipped the Afghan National Security Forces, but accompanied those forces on combat operations against the Taliban.  As advisers, we experienced the stark difference between the fighting “will” of Afghan forces with U.S. (or coalition) advisers and without those advisers.  In short, when U.S. advisory teams accompanied Afghan Forces on missions, it was our experience those forces would fight to the last man and show incredible bravery.

Conversely, in many cases when Afghan Forces were not accompanied by advisers we would learn of those forces appearing to show far less will to fight. The embedded forces, with access to airpower, meant everything.   \

Accompanying indigenous forces with access to overwhelming airpower is the key to winning. In the first months of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, a few hundred special-operations advisers with access to devastating airpower helped the beleaguered Northern Alliance drive the Taliban from power. The Taliban were not only an Islamist military, but governed Afghanistan similar to the Islamic State which now governs huge swaths of Syria and Iraq. Until the U.S. advisory effort became embedded with the Northern Alliance, the war appeared to be at a stalemate. The difference came with the confidence and firepower brought to bear with the advisers. One benefit to the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is that we now have thousands of trained and experienced advisers to fill the roll if called. Most of us would be happy to join this mission.  

As Gen. Anthony Zinni learned in Vietnam, the advisory effort gains a true perspective on the war and is in the best position to help local forces win. Many observers of Vietnam note the success of the Marine “Combined Action Platoon” program (CAP), in which Marine rifle platoon-sized forces actually lived with the Vietnamese. They provided security and confidence to the allied Vietnamese, and also gained the best intelligence perspective of what was actually happening on the ground. I had the same experience in Afghanistan, and advisers to the Iraqi forces made the same claims. It would be the same embedding our forces to fight the Islamic State, and not just training and equipping forces that end up “giving” our equipment to the enemy.

About a week after the fall of Ramadi, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters he believed it important to review the “training” mission of Iraqi Forces to see “what we can do to enhance the effectiveness [of Iraqi forces].” This came after what the Secretary had earlier referred to as a lack of “will” of Iraqi forces to fight against the Islamic State in Ramadi. He went on to say, “I think training and equipment affect the effectiveness of the forces and therefore ... their confidence in their ability to operate, so there is a direct relationship.”  

Though I believe we need to review our training mission in Afghanistan, if we stop at “training” we will likely not “enhance the effectiveness” of the Iraqi forces.

What is needed is not only more training and equipping of the Iraqi forces, but substantially more airpower and embedded advisers. We must take the risk of American casualties and fully embed our advisers to gain success. That’s the part that’s missing right now, and would make all the difference without turning this fight into a seeming “quagmire” of hundreds-of-thousands of conventional troops.

The risk of casualties among those embedded is worth the price, as Americans now understand we cannot allow the Islamic State to continue to metastasize. Jihadists from throughout the world, including Europe and the U.S., have flocked to the Islamic State. And the perceived success of the Islamic State is bringing further momentum. A recent Al Jazeera online poll showed around 80-percent support for the Islamic State among the 40,000 who took the poll. Similar shocking polling-percentages come from a number of seemingly moderate Muslim nations. These numbers should not be ignored, and we cannot stick our head in the sand and pretend this is a “JV” team supported by only a “tiny number of extremists.”

After describing the worst case scenario of involving major U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Syria, Gene Robinson exclaimed, “The other choice is to pull back. This strikes me as the worst course of action—except for all the rest.” 

Wrong on two counts. First, as most are beginning to realize, we cannot simply “pull back” from the horror of the Islamic State, no more than we could ignore Nazi atrocities in World War II. After what we know of the massacres, beheadings, tortures, rapes, sex slaves, and the threats of the Islamic State to murder our citizens and commit terror on American soil, we have no place to run. We must fight. Importantly, our way to security is not the choice Robinson would have us believe: Overwhelming conventional troops or nothing. The way to victory is with embedded advisers calling in true airpower.

The path to victory is clear. The only question is what it will take to finally take that path.


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Col. Bill Connor -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Bill Connor,  received his Bachelor’s of Arts from The Citadel in 1990. After serving over ten years as an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army he received his Juris Doctorate from University of South Carolina in 2005.

He is currently an attorney with Hamilton and Associates in Columbia, South Carolina.

In May 2008, he returned from a yearlong combat deployment in Southern Afghanistan. During that time, he served as Joint Operations Officer for the Southern Region of Afghanistan developing and implementing the US advisory effort for Afghan National Security Forces. This effort occurred during the 2007 Taliban spring/summer offensive.

Due to success in that position, he was promoted to take command of the US advisory effort in the volatile province of Helmand. Shortly after arrival in Helmand, he was promoted in rank from Major to Lt. Colonel. In addition to command of US advisory teams, he was the senior American working with the United Kingdom senior staff. Upon return from Afghanistan, he published the book “Articles from War,”a memoir of his experiences and thoughts in Afghanistan.

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