Most people will perhaps by now have an inkling that the war against Islamic terrorism will go on much longer than the wars in Syria or Iraq. The narrative is too compelling for some to give up, governance too poor to stop people being attracted to that narrative, and identities too complex to provide a counter-narrative that addresses everyone’s perceived injustices. Understanding the deep-seated nature of the problem, Washington has had to tread a fine line. It seeks to avoid becoming decisively engaged, so as not to exacerbate the situation and become the problem rather than part of the solution, while deploying sufficient military and diplomatic support to try to contain the situation and steer it in a desired direction. None of it is, or will be, neat.
Part of the problem has been finding partners that have a strategic aim that coincides sufficiently with that of the Obama Administration, and who share enough values with the US so that it can stomach working with them. It is often easier to find the the first than the second, given interests tend to be temporary while values somewhat more permanent. The difficult balancing act that Washington finds itself in the region is reflected in its piecemeal allocation of troops, all there for valid reasons, but all with their own unique operating environments and challenges.
In Libya, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently signalled an increase to the US military presence, over and above the two small teams already in Misrata and Benghazi who have been scoping possible ground partners since late last year.
In Yemen, the US reluctantly provided limited support to the Saudi-led air campaign from its inception, but largely as a means of inserting some form of adult supervision on an organisation that had never undertaken such a campaign before. More recently though, the US has also provided a small detachment of ground troops to assist the Saudi and Emirati forces dislodge AQAP (Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula) from the coastal city of Mukalla.
And the recent visit by the new commander of Central Command, Joseph Votel into northern Syria to visit the small US military detachment there — working with the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — highlighted its role in the most intractable of the multiple conflicts in the region. There are some indications that Votel's visit has drawn criticism from some within the opposition Free Syrian Army because of the dominance of the Kurdish YPG in the SDF, further highlighting how complex the opposition picture is in Syria. And in neighbouring Iraq, Votel visited some of the several thousand US military personnel working to support Iraqi forces against Islamic State.
The term 'boots on the ground' means many things to many people, including news media. The military (and most politicians) would consider the term to mean combat manoeuvre forces, implying one is decisively committed to the fight. The presence of advisers and enabling (or supporting) forces falls short of that measure, even though there are military personnel physically present in operational areas. The media struggle to understand the difference.
What we see in the Middle East currently is a US not becoming decisively committed to the ground fighting, but deploying small groups to assist local groups that Washington can work with to engage in the contact battles. Sounds complex ? You bet. But if it wasn't it wouldn't be the Middle East.
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