As the Islamic State (IS) conquered much of Iraq nearly five years ago, overtaking the Mosul Dam and marching within striking distance of American diplomats, Army Gen. Joseph Votel faced a nearly impossible mission.
He had just weeks to funnel elite American troops back into Iraq to help coordinate airstrikes to halt the group’s advance. But Votel, then in charge of US special operations, had little support from the White House or Congress to deploy significant American troops and firepower to the fight.
“What we knew early on is that we weren’t going to send in the 101st Airborne to retake the Mosul Dam,” said John Miller, a retired vice admiral who led US naval operations in the Middle East until 2015. “Somebody else is going to have to do that. It’s because the Iraqis don’t want the 101st Airborne, but they want their dam back.”
With American air bases in the region emptied out in an effort to contain Russia’s push into Ukraine, Votel’s counterparts in US Central Command strung up an adhoc intelligence and armed reconnaissance network necessary to carry out the campaign over more than 135 days of teleconferences as IS neared, storming the Turkish Consulate in Mosul in June and capturing 49 hostages.
For nearly two months, small cadres of special forces deployed to Iraq, which the Pentagon had left just three years earlier, to provide targeting data to carrier-fired jets parked on the USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf, until the Air Force could put strike aircraft nearby.
Special forces beaming targeting information to aircraft carriers for armed reconnaissance and strike missions was “a slightly different way of doing business than we were used to,” Miller concedes, but the blend proved effective, loosening the militant group’s hold just as the fight seemed to be heading out of control.
IS had driven through Mahmour, one of the last major checkpoints on the way to the US Consulate in Erbil, and residents — without power and internet — were steeling themselves for invasion when American airstrikes began lighting up the sky.
“They were preparing for the worst,” said one American observer on the ground, who hitched a ride out of the city to Sulaimaniyah. “If not for the airstrikes we would have been in a pretty bad situation.”
Votel’s slick bureaucratic maneuvering in the four-year campaign to destroy the IS caliphate seemed to set the tone for a slimmed-down US presence that eventually relied on Pentagon-trained Syrian Kurdish fighters geolocating American airstrikes and artillery targets on Microsoft tablets to do the bulk of the fighting.
As Votel hung up his stars after a stint as the top US military commander in the Middle East in April, the Pentagon has touted his model of blending American firepower with US-trained forces on the frontlines as the future of low-budget warfare in the region. Mick Mulroy, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said earlier this year that the new model would focus on US training of elite special forces units to target terrorists, such as the remnants of IS.
But as Votel’s successor at CENTCOM, Gen. Frank McKenzie, requested 1,500 fresh US troops to the Middle East this month to deal with alleged threats against US troops from Iranian proxy groups, experts worry that the by, with, and through approach will not get the same focus with the Donald Trump administration increasingly focusing on Tehran.
“There is every reason to believe it will receive less focus under McKenzie,” said Linda Robinson, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who knew Votel personally as commander. “Votel has been a great champion of this because of where he came from in the [special forces] community.” Votel even lobbied for the by, with, and through approach to be written into US military doctrine in a Joint Force Quarterly article last year.
The current crisis with Iran, which has prompted the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, a bomber wing, a suite of F-22 Raptor jets and the extension of a Patriot missile defense deployment to the region, provides a contrast to Votel’s tenure. While Votel faced pressure from inside the National Security Council and White House to tie the American mission in Syria to the exit of Iranian forces, he pushed back against an expansion of the effort against Tehran.
Yet placing advisers instead of infantry units near the frontlines has come at a cost. Current and former US officials told Al-Monitor that the United States is heavily dependent on the larger contingent of Syrian Democratic Forces to provide escorts to protect the light footprint of troops on the ground, and to provide intelligence support, identifying bad guys that could threaten American lives.
“He was a key person that maintained the focus on the mission,” said one US source with experience on the ground in Syria. “He knew that 2,000 troops on the ground was a minimum and any expansion of the mission would be dangerous.”
The use of military advisers required heavier dependence on local forces for help that American troops usually take for granted in larger numbers. So instead, Votel built a close personal relationship with Mazloum Kobane, his Kurdish counterpart in Syria, and helped former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis fight back pressure from the US administration to tie the American mission in the war-torn country to the exit of Iranian forces.
Votel also pushed to delegate the Pentagon’s targeting authorities in the IS fight, allowed advisers to intermingle with Iraqi units at battalion level and relaxed collateral casualty values, giving subordinates more leeway to take the fight to IS in Mosul.
“In an urban fight, it’s really hard in real time to run things up the channels and back down,” said Sean MacFarland, a retired US Army lieutenant general who commanded the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria from 2015 to 2016. “Instead of hours you have seconds. You had to be closer to the action with your advisers. You couldn’t watch with a [surveillance drone] because of sharp corners and obstructions.”
In the meantime, MacFarland helped broker a plan to get control of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) interspersed with Iraqi units fighting up and down the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, in cities such as Baiji and Fallujah.
“I said, hey look, if you don’t play by the rules, bad things will happen. You won’t get fires support, and we might hit your guys,” MacFarland recalls telling the PMU through Hadi al-Amiri. “We didn’t want to directly support the Iranian backed militia groups, but we didn’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face.”
But human rights groups protested that a more decentralized US strategy caused far more civilian casualties than the Pentagon could account for.
Despite the high civilian death toll, the Defense Department insists it has made an effort to tackle the challenge of limiting collateral damage in dense urban environments. CENTCOM enlists three working groups “to minimize the potential for civilian casualties,” the DoD said in a report provided to Congress in February.
The Pentagon also told Congress it was drafting a department-wide guidance to cut down on civilian casualties that will inform future instructions to US troops, led by David Trachtenberg, deputy to the department’s top policy official. Mattis also led an exercise with leaders of nongovernmental organizations in December. But with the Trump administration committing resources to a long-term reconstruction effort in Syria, some experts fear the security situation will get worse.
“There are serious security issues of the kind that Raqqa’s residents hadn’t known before,” said Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis adviser with Amnesty International who traveled to the city earlier this year. “They don’t feel safe, and so the city is not secure. Even during the day, women getting their bags snatched is something that Raqqa never knew before IS.”
Yet even as the latest counter-Iran deployment has hinted that the Pentagon may be considering a more muscular troop presence in the Middle East, former US commanders don’t believe that Votel’s low-budget brand of warfare will go away. A former special forces commander who spoke to Al-Monitor said there are a basket of authorities that allow for train-and-equip and direct action missions to continue, such as Section 333, which allows American forces to arm Arab allies and to advance to the last point of cover before military contact with trainees.
The Pentagon also retains a classified authority known as Section 127e that allows elite US troops to accompany partnered forces on raids against high-value targets.
“My sense of it is it absolutely won’t die. Not because it’s good or bad, but it’s part of a huge bureaucracy,” said a former special forces commander, speaking not for attribution. “I think he [Votel] recognized the constraints with the Obama administration about casualties and risk, and the amount of US involvement.”