Are special forces the answer to the ISIL fight?

As the fight against ISIL continues, are highly-skilled western forces a quick fix?

    Special forces have advantages in a region suspicious of large numbers of foreign troops [EPA]
    Special forces have advantages in a region suspicious of large numbers of foreign troops [EPA]

    Events in the region this week have thrown into sharp focus the challenges the Middle East faces in its war against ISIL.

    The killing of Jordanian pilot, Maoz al-Kassasbeh, ‎has refocused the country's efforts and dragged them further into war.

    The shooting at a plane in Baghdad international airport and the alleged killing of an aid worker, who ISIL claim died in an Jordanian air strike, have many wondering what the solution is to the ISIL problem.

    One British politician and head of the Commons Defence Committee, Rory Stewart, this week suggested that the best quick fix solution is sending highly-skilled western special forces to fight alongside the Iraqi army and increase British air strikes. Other pundits have advocated the same.

    It's a tempting proposition on a number of levels. ‎Special forces have the advantage of a smaller footprint and, in a region that is suspicious of coalition forces arriving in Iraq in great numbers, that's politically advantageous.

    They're also seen as a force multiplier when you add them in to the mix with regular local armies. However, there does tend to be a limit to how useful they are. Former American Brigadier General Mark Kimmit understands the nature of the war against ISIL. A long time veteran of the Iraq conflict and a regular visitor to Baghdad, he is clear on what role special forces play, and he sees it as limited.

    "They are taking the lead in current operations, but the small size of the force and the specialised nature of their operations is not enough. They are good for the "clear" phase of counterinsurgency operations, but it will require different forces and resources for the "hold" and "build" phases.‎"

    Clear. Hold. Build. In counter insurgency speak it's a mantra that is often repeated. You go into an area, clear it of fighters, secure and hold it, then alongside the locals, help rebuild. But without a political will and massive investment the any clearing of areas can be lost, and lost spectacularly.

    Kimmitt continues: "The special forces are dependent upon locals for intelligence, as well as for taking over the ground gained once the close battle is over. The local Iraqi troops must "hold" the ground gained once the special forces move on."

    This is something the Americans know only too well. In Anbar province the Americans funded, trained and supported Sunni awakening councils to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. ‎They won. But then the Americans stopped supporting the Sunni tribes, and under the air strikes the Sunni tribes lost hope, and that's one factor that lead to ISIL's rise. The awakening forces and the US 'cleared' the area. But they lost the 'Hold' and 'Build' phases.

    Special forces do have a significant role to play. But it's a specific and limited one, and alongside air strikes ‎it will only go so far. Iraq has had some successes in the fight against ISIL. In places like Jurf as Sakher, Iranian special forces and Shia militias have pushed back ISIL. Coalition, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iraqi forces have beaten ISIL in parts of the north.

    The cost, however, is high. Whole towns and villages have been levelled. Local populations displaced. In order to defeat ISIL militarily you have to make sure that rebuilding is of equal priority to clearing areas of fighters.

    In Iraq you have the ability to do that as you do have a, however flawed, an Army. In Syria it's a much more complicated situation requiring a leap of faith in the rebel groups the west wants to support and regional ambitions of Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia and President Bashar al-Assad. The talk of sending in more troops and more special forces acts in many ways as a distraction to what is really needed. A clear, workable vision of what happens when the special forces leave.

    Follow Imran Khan on Twitter: @ajimran

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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