“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse: we don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said of the effort to combat the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in its safe haven in Syria. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of what we’re at than what we currently are.”Inartful is a kind word - but I think some are being a bit too harsh at the President. The following damage control should, for my fellow planners, help add a little nuance;
“In his remarks today, [Obama] was explicit — as he has been in the past — about the comprehensive strategy we’ll use to confront [ISIS] threat,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a series of Twitter posts. “He was referring to military options for striking [ISIS] in Syria,” Earnest added in a hastily scheduled CNN appearance.Bingo.
Obama was set to meet with the National Security Council on Thursday evening, and he said his Administration is working hard to develop a plan for stemming ISIS’s spread from Iraq to Syria.
Remember, military operations are not inside the President's comfort zone - even though he as been at this for over half a decade. He may be, technically at least, correct - and here is why.
Different Operational Planning confessions will use different terms, and processes may differ here and there - but try not to nit pic the following and just follow my lead on the dance floor and ignore me if I step on your toes.
Here is my entering argument - the reason the President said what he said it that, technically, if we are in the middle of a Crisis Response Planning process, he may not have a Strategic Operational Plan (OPLAN) to sign off of. He may have only provided broad Political level guidance, and the Joint Staff/CENTCOM have not spit back a Strategic Level plan back his way.
Here are some of the assumptions (not Planning Assumptions, I may get to those at later posts if I turn this in to a series), I am working with. These are broad assumptions and may be totally off base, but here we go. If nothing else, then at least it is an entering argument.
1. In spite of warnings about what is now the Islamic State, we are well behind the power curve on Crisis Response Planning (CRP). Either that, or we had one working, but the Course of Action (COA) that is playing out is worse than what the J2 led Red Team came up with as Red Worst Case COA and they have had to start over from scratch.
2. The President, as he has before, is not a fast decision maker on national security matters and is sending back Blue COA options he doesn't like.
3. Most importantly for this and other crisis we are facing; in the place of Gates, Hillary Clinton, James Jones, and Leon Panetta - the President now has Hagel, John Fracking Kerry, and Susan Rice .... with Joe Biden even closer to his ear. 'Nuff said on that.
My guess, he is still waiting for a Strategic Plan that he can sign off on. That is what he meant ... and in a way it is true - if you don't have an overarching national defense strategy, then you don't have a default answer. If nothing else, Obama's national security strategy is to disengage - to lead from behind - and that is not working. It has become the square peg facing the round whole and he does not want to admit it. This leads to analysis paralysis as a system holds its breath, threatening the world that it won't breath until it changes. Not a successful theme ... not a strategy ... but a theme.
This President only takes non-domestic crisis in serial. He doesn't do parallel and he doesn't see the larger macro trends. He has in his mind what he wants the world to be, and anything outside that world view in how the world actually is, he either doesn't understand or has little interest in trying to understand. I think he sees them as distractions and irritants from what he really wants to do as President. As a result, in this case, he is just waiting for staff work to get done so he can sign off on it and talk more about Ferguson.
Here how it is supposed to be done: the President is at the Political Level. Under the Political is the Strategic, the Operational, and then the Tactical Level. One has to rely on the other. As I am sure that there was no useful standing OPLAN done on the Islamic State, then this would require using the CRP process - a Parallel Planning Process where Strategic, Operational, and Tactical OPLANS are worked at the same time.
Now let's play in the land of make believe.
Let's make an assumption that the President has already put forth his Initiating Directive. We don't have it, and we also do not have is Political Direction and Guidance (D&G). Depending on who is advising him, they may be the same thing, or not even called that. I am being a little pedantic - but the process is well known, just as it is well known that it is usually ignored.
So, we know what we don't know, and that puts us in a spot - as the military will plan anything - all it takes is for the CINC to tell us what he wants. Want us to put on deliver MREs, copies of Dreams from my Father, and free condoms to the world's 20 most isolated villages? We can do that. Want us to plan to nuke every suspected Taliban village in Waziristan (North and South) and Islamic State troop concentration in Syria and Iraq - we can do that too.
Well, the truth is somewhere in between, but we have no idea what it is. I don't want to put my mind in President Obama's head ... so where do we find a compromise? What can we assume? What can we use as a proxy?
We need someone who is more than qualified to think at the Strategic and above level - yet isn't clearly seen as a Susan Rice or Paul Wolfowitz acolyte. For this blog, it might be fun if we could find someone that I have had issues with in the past, yet respect. Better yet, someone how has pissed inside and on everyone's tent. Yes, that would be a good proxy.
Who has already made some assumptions of his own and has put out something like you might see as Strategic/POLMIL D&G after receiving some vague guidance from Obama at the Political level ... the Commander's Initial Guidance? Not perfect (it never is) - but something broad enough that a Planning Group J-5/CJ-5 Planning Group Chair can take to his core planning team and run with it?
Ahhh ... perfect. Let's go with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.). I am going to make the former CENTCOM Commander and all around gadfly the Strategic Level Commander proxy.
Though I am sure the Joint Staff has received something from Obama to work with - in this case in order to make sense of what follows - let us assume that Obama has opened the door to some ... but not many ... ground forces on the ground. I will also make the assumption that no one at the Political level is being clear about exactly what they want done, Hagel is fuddled and Biden is jumping the chain of command all over the place and contradicting everything else that is being said, including by the President. CJCS are getting in business that isn't even theirs and muddying the waters ... actually ... a fairly realistic set up.
How would an Operational Planning Group get their Strategic D&G? Not textbook - but if we run with our parallel universe historical fiction of the now - how could it happen?
Assume that Zinni is playing the role of Hindenberg pulled out of deep retirement (minus standing awkwardly at a railroad station in his Prussian Blue uniform). Keeping with the spotty and disjointed nature of CRP being done too late to be done perfectly (we'll go with good), we would probably just get some verbiage via is a very brief VTC with General Zinni - message to follow later, maybe - and in the course of a short session, the Planning Group would have to run with as Higher Commander's Guidance something like;
“... put two brigades on the ground of U.S. forces, ... push ISIS back to Syria ...”Follow the link above to see where I plucked this from.
I like this a lot. This isn't even close to what doctrine requires, drills down well below Strategic (at first glance), and gives you frustratingly little to work with, etc - but so what. That is reality.
So, the VTC ends and that is what we have for now until more D&G trickles in. At the end of the VTC, we have the J-3 and/or J-5 looking over at the Planning lead with a, "Well, get me a plan - chop chop!" look, and off they go.
What do they have?
1. Limited to two brigades.
2. Push ISIS back to Syria.
Can you build a Plan with this as Strategic Guidance? I argue that yes, you can. Especially at the Operational Level, you can build a plan based on just that. You'll probably need a serious re-write or two as it is briefed up through the J-codes, but you have enough to build around.
Is this even an option being considered? I hope so. Is it a good answer, I don't know that either.
War is a dark room; once you step through the door, you have no idea what is in there.
I do know this. Especially about Iraq, Zinni was right about a lot of things. For him to offer this, it cannot be ignored as a possible option and is worth considering.
I found Zinni ... who else out there who has actually been a Strategic Level Commander has put something out you could build an OPLAN around? Zinni's short note is about as close as I can see to something that could realistically be an option ... even if way to the far side of the kinetic area a probability for this Administration ... but not out of the realm of possibility.
One note of caution; doing nothing is an option as well - but a different topic for a different day.