Posts by RickFrancona:

    American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast….

    February 21st, 2017

    By Rick Francona.


    Note: This article is my followup to an excellent piece written by fellow CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, U.S. Army (Retired): Combat troops to Syria? Not so fast. In it, the general details very clearly the military planning process.

    Here are some additional considerations that should be addressed when contemplating the introduction of American combat forces into Syria. The special operations forces now on the ground in Syria are technically in a “train, advise and assist” capacity – that is “Pentagon-speak” that there are no U.S. boots on the ground, no troops in combat.* What the report alludes to is the possible deployment of actual combat units – armor, artillery, infantry and the required support units – possibly a U.S. Army brigade combat team.

    A key planning factor in developing a recommendation to be made to the Secretary of Defense and the President is the current political and military situation in Syria, in the region and how that affects the larger international landscape. Nothing in the Middle East happens in a vacuum – there are many competing interests that must be evaluated. Events in Syria are influenced by external events, just as external events are influenced by what happens in Syria. This also impacts the ever-important U.S.-Russia relationship as well.

    I know this is complicated, so I will try to simplify it as best I can without sacrificing accuracy. Among a variety of assignments in the Middle East, I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. In that position, I routinely traveled the entire country, observing and reporting on the political and military situation. That travel took me to all of the areas in which there is now fighting between the all of the various factions, including the al-Raqqah area. I like to say that I have been on every paved road in Syria – not exactly true, but close.

    President Trump has tasked the Department of Defense to provide options to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Given those instructions, I will focus solely on that objective, rather than trying to address the Obama Administration’s bifurcated (and in my view somewhat unrealistic) policy of defeating ISIS and also removing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

    The two objectives are virtually incompatible, and became even more so with the deployment of Russian military forces to Syria in September 2015. Any window of opportunity for the removal of al-Asad regime, either militarily or politically, closed when the first Russian fighter-bombers landed at Humaymim air base in northwestern Syria.

    Most Middle East military analysts would agree that ISIS’s center of gravity in Syria – and thus the principal objective – is the group’s self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah. It is analogous with the city of Mosul in Iraq, now under attack by Iraqi military, special operations and police units. It is only a matter of time before Mosul falls to Iraqi forces.

    In Iraq, there is ISIS on one side and everyone else on the other. Those allied against ISIS include the various Iraqi security forces, Iranian-supported (and many of us believe, Iranian-led) Shi’a militias, the very effective Kurdish peshmerga forces, and a variety of U.S.-led coalition troops providing differing levels of support. That coalition support includes intelligence, logistics, training and advising, direct artillery and rocket fires, and constant air strikes.

    The situation in Syria could not be more different. As in Iraq, ISIS is the common enemy, however, there is not a coordinated or even coherent effort to fight it.

    Note that I am not addressing the ongoing fighting in the western and southern parts of Syria, as those areas are peripheral to the main efforts against ISIS. While important, they are primarily between Syrian regime forces backed by its allies and anti-regime rebel groups, be they secular or Islamist.

    The area of operations to be considered in this analysis stretches from Aleppo to the Iraqi border, roughly along the Euphrates River, a distance of almost 250 miles (see map below). Al-Raqqah sits approximately in the middle. Most planners believe that taking al-Raqqah is the key to defeating ISIS in Syria.

    In the coming battle for al-Raqqah, the major combatant groups in the fight against ISIS are:

    * Syrian government and its allies. The Syrian armed forces are supported by the Russian armed forces, primarily through airpower, but also via missile strikes and rocket/field artillery. Additional ground forces are provided by the Iranian Army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and a group of Afghan Shi’a fighters. These allies have effectively doubled the size of what remains of the Syrian Army. The Syrian military has been severely crippled by losses and defections to the point that without this external assistance, it would cease to be a viable force.

    * Major elements of the Free Syrian Army, supported in this operation – dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield – by the Turkish military. One might question Turkey’s motives for participating in the fighting. Although Ankara’s stated reason is to fight ISIS – and they are doing that – many believe it is to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not create some form of autonomous region in northern Syria as they have in Iraq, or worst case, attempt to merge the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas into one political entity.

    * U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is made up of about two thirds Kurdish fighters from a group known as the People’s Protection Units, more commonly known by the Kurdish initials YPG. Turkey is concerned about American support for the YPG, since they regard the Kurdish militia as nothing more that an extension of the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish initials, PKK). The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and NATO.

    The other third of the SDF is made up of Syrian Arabs who are committed to combating ISIS in return for American support – money, weapons and training. American special operations forces have been embedded with the SDF to “advise and assist” in the fight against ISIS, which includes on-the-ground control of American airstrikes.

    (For more detail on the political-military landscape in Syria, see my earlier article, The coming assault on al-Raqqah – a political minefield.)

    The current military situation on the ground in this area is also a key planning factor. There are basically two concurrent operations underway. The first is concentrated around the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. Al-Bab is located about 20 road miles northeast of the city of Aleppo, and – here is the key number – about 100 road miles northwest of al-Raqqah.

    Black=ISIS / Red=Syrian regime / Green=FSA / Orange=SDF

    The fighting around al-Bab clearly illustrates the complicated nature of the political-military situation in Syria. ISIS still controls most of the city, which is under attack from both the Turkish-backed FSA as well as Russian/Iranian/Hizballah-backed Syrian regime forces. American-backed SDF forces are not far away.

    All three of the groups are fighting not only ISIS, but each other. The Russians and Turks have tried to keep their respective clients focused on combating ISIS, with only limited success.

    The fighting around al-Bab has been ongoing for months. Despite Russian, Syrian and Turkish air and ground support, ISIS has fought a deliberate and steady defense, basically slowing the advance of the opposing forces into ISIS-held territory. This keeps the front line of the Turkish-backed FSA about 85 miles (over 100 road miles) from al-Raqqah. If the past fighting is any indication, it will take months for the FSA or Syrian regime to be in a position to mount an attack on al-Raqqah.

    Contrast the positions of the regime and FSA with that of the American-backed SDF near al-Raqqah. According to the latest situation map (below), SDF forces have approached the northeastern suburbs of the city itself. This culminates a three-month operation to isolate al-Raqqah from the west, north and now east.

    The Euphrates River presents a natural southern obstacle for ISIS in the city. The coalition has destroyed the two bridges over the Euphrates, complicating movement between the northern and southern sections of the city.

    Here is where politics on the international level and the military situation on the ground in Syria converge. Turkey – a key NATO ally – insists that its forces be in the vanguard of the effort to liberate al-Raqqah. They believe that the Syrian Arab FSA troops, supported by Turkish Army artillery, armor and special forces, as well as Turkish Air Force air strikes, should mount the assault on the city, as opposed to the majority Syrian Kurdish SDF.

    The Turks’ rationale is that to the residents of al-Raqqah, the SDF will be regarded as a Kurdish force despite the SDF name and only minor Arab participation. In essence, according to the Turks, the people will be trading one oppressor for another, saying that “one terrorist organization can not be used to fight another.” This makes sense if you buy into the Turkish assertion that the YPG, the Kurdish militia participating in the SDF, is a terrorist organization. Personally, I don’t.

    Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaks out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, even a Kurdish-dominant liberating force, hoping that after the city is liberated from ISIS life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

    That said, the Turks have presented their arguments to the United States at the highest levels. In response, the nascent Trump Administration has put a hold on additional armor and heavy weapons to the SDF, pending a review of U.S. policy in Syria.

    Knowing that the United States believes time is of the essence in moving on al-Raqaah (based on intelligence that ISIS cells in the city are planning attacks on the West), the Turks have advanced two proposals for an accelerated Turkish-backed FSA assault on the city. The nearest FSA units are still almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and in a tough fight around al-Bab.

    The Turks’ preferred plan of action, which I will call “Plan A,” proposes the Turkish and American special operations forces lead an FSA force via a corridor through Kurdish-held territory from the border town of Tal Abiyad south to al-Raqqah (indicated in white on the above map), a distance of about 60 miles. Turkey would need American help to persuade the Kurds to allow the Turks to enter this area – not a small feat while Turkish forces near al-Bab are fighting SDF/YPG units.

    The second option, or what I am calling Plan B, is to continue the fight from al-Bab, moving east to the Euphrates and along the south bank of the river to al-Raqqah, a distance of over 100 road miles (indicated in blue on the map). That is essentially the status quo, but would require American assurances that the SDF will not mount a unilateral assault on al-Raqqah while the Turkish-backed FSA fights its way to the city. This will take months.

    In my assessment, Plan B is a nonstarter. It will take too long – it will prolong the suffering of the people of al-Raqqah and if the intelligence on ISIS attack planning is correct, possibly facilitate a lethal ISIS operation against a Western target. As for Plan A, I doubt the Kurds will be amenable to allowing the Turks to traverse their territory with armor and artillery for fear that they will never leave, regardless of any American guarantee to the contrary.

    The next step is for the Trump Administration to determine what our overall policy in Syria is to be, how much stake we place in maintaining a cooperative relationship with NATO ally Turkey, while adhering to the commitment to defeat ISIS.

    If asked, I would advise the President to provide whatever support – armor, artillery, airstrikes, intelligence, etc. – the Department of Defense deems necessary to the SDF, understanding the risks of having what will be perceived as a Kurdish force liberate a Syrian Arab city. We cannot wait for the Turks and the FSA.

    If the Defense planners determine that the SDF is incapable of taking al-Raqqah, even with increased U.S. support, then and only then should they recommend the insertion of American combat units into this political minefield. Or as General Hertling and I both say, not so fast.

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    After the fall of Aleppo, what next?

    December 14th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.


    The graphic above is a Reuters photograph with a caption from the Arab-language al-Jazeera network. The caption reads:

    Truce agreement and the evacuation of civilians and fighters from Aleppo. Syrian opposition sources confirmed that they had reached an agreement with the regime for a cease fire and the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo. It will take effect beginning Tuesday evening.

    So this is how the battle of Aleppo ends. The struggle for control of what was Syria’s largest city began in earnest in the summer of 2012. My assessment at that time (See Syria–the battle for Aleppo – July 30, 2012):

    The battle of Aleppo will be a harbinger of things to come. If the opposition is defeated by overwhelming military force, which it might be since the Bashar al-Asad regime seems to have no reticence about turning its military – the armed forces built to fight the superior Israel Defense Forces – on its civilian population, it may well portend the end of the uprising. The opposition cannot afford to lose in Aleppo – for them it is do or die.

    The opposition – a term that includes not only the Free Syrian Army, but a variety of Islamic militias as well as the al-Qa’idah affiliate in Syria, formerly the jabhat al-nusrah (Victory Front), now calling itself the jabhat al-fatah al-sham (Levant Conquest Front) – fought the battle for over four years.

    Several times in the years of fighting, the opposition held the upper hand, even to the point of advancing south while pushing back the Syrian Army almost completely out of Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Despite the coordinated – and significant – intervention of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah fighters, the opposition was still able to continue to put pressure on the Syrian regime.

    In 2015, when it appeared that the regime was again faltering, especially in Aleppo and Idlib, the Russians intervened with massive amounts of airpower, the likes of which the opposition had never experienced at the hands of the Syrian Arab Air Force.

    The introduction of effective airpower into the fighting was able to not only stop the Syrian withdrawal and rebel advance, it precipitated a major reversal of fortune that has led us to the fall of Aleppo today.

    I was not alone in my predictions – virtually every military analyst warned that the city would be retaken by the regime and its backers. There was too much firepower arrayed against the rebels – with Russian airpower and advice, the forces encircled the city and slowly but deliberately began to crush the resistance.

    Repeated American attempts at ceasefires failed. The regime appeared to have the upper hand – I am sure Russian military analysts had come to the same conclusions that I had – it was only a matter of time, so why agree to any ceasefire except on the most favorable terms? American diplomacy had failed – I summed up my thoughts in October with an article, Aleppo–the impotence of American diplomacy.

    That impotence characterized by chronically ineffective Secretary of State John Kerry continues. A ceasefire agreement that will go into effect on December 14 allowing civilians as well as rebel fighters to leave the city was reached – the agreement was hammered out between the Turkish national intelligence organization and the Russian military. Kerry has been trying for weeks to reach some agreement with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with no results.

    The recriminations will consume the news for the next week. As government forces and their allies begin their bloody retribution in the former rebel stronghold, the question is – what happens now? This is the fall of Aleppo, not the end of the war.

    I believe the Syrian alliance will now focus its military efforts to the south and southwest of Aleppo. The alliance now consists of what remains of the Syrian Army – now less than half its pre-war strength due to losses and defections – IRGC forces, Iranian Army troops, Hizballah fighters, Iraqi Shi’a militias, Afghan Shi’a volunteers, as well as Russian special forces and advisers. The Syrian Army contribution to effort comprises only half of the total ground forces.

    The ground components are supported by Russian Navy missiles, Russian Army field and rocket artillery, and a large contingent of Russian Air Force fighters, fighter-bombers and attack aircraft, including helicopter gunships. These aircraft are based near Latakia at Humaymim air base, normally used by the Syrian Navy antisubmarine warfare helicopter squadron.

    The Russian expeditionary presence in Syria, protected by state-of-the-art air defenses and electronic warfare systems, is a potent military force. Without the presence of the Russians and other foreign forces, the Syrian armed forces would be hard-pressed to conduct successful offensive operations.

    I should also mention the Syria deployment of the Russian Navy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its complement of fighters and fighter-bombers, but the carrier has had numerous maintenance issues – its catapults are now inoperative, forcing the Russians to relocate the aircraft to Humaymim.

    The first military objective after the Syrian alliance has fully secured Aleppo will be the re-opening of the main north-south highway – officially called the M5 or International Highway, but more commonly known as the Aleppo Highway. The highway is a good four-lane road that runs from the border with Jordan in the south, north through Damascus, Homs and Hamah, then ending in Aleppo. It is the main line of communication for the western part of Syria, home to the major country’s population centers.

    Referring to the map, the area in the red oval – coincidentally the primary target area for the Russian Air Force – is currently under opposition control and includes that main highway. The regime has been forced to rely on a two-lane desert road out to the east to maintain its line of communication between its strongholds in Hamah and Homs with its forces in the Aleppo area.

    That desert road has at times been cut by rebel attacks – the regime needs to secure the main highway before they will be able to mount a major offensive to defeat the opposition in Idlib Governorate. That attack will be south on that highway from Aleppo and north on the highway from Hamah – obviously supported heavily by Russian airpower.

    There is still fight left in the rebels, but they have just been handed a serious military defeat and major symbolic setback. As with the Syrian regime and its allies’ assault on Aleppo, the massive amount of firepower and complete domination of the airspace over the battlefield will almost certainly overwhelm the fractured opposition. Unless there is a change of the situation on the ground – which I do not foresee – the revolution and the civil war may well be lost.

    It gets worse for the opposition. On January 20, Donald Trump becomes the new American president. Given his pronouncements that the United States is not going to support the overthrow of dictators around the world or engage in nation building, we may see the development of an actual coherent policy on Syria.

    Current American policy appears to be bifurcated between the removal of Bashar al-Asad and the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS. The two are almost impossible to achieve together – I believe the new president may opt to drop the former and keep the latter.

    The situation for the various components of the Syrian opposition worsened with the loss of Aleppo – I fear they will get no help from a Trump Administration.

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    Possible Secretary of Defense nominee Jim Mattis – finally, a wartime consigliere

    November 23rd, 2016

    By Rick Francona.

    President-elect Trump may soon nominate James “Mad Dog” Mattis to be the next Secretary of Defense. Mattis is a 66-year old retired U.S. Marine Corps general who has served multiple combat tours – including the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq – in a variety of command positions, including the 7th Marine Regiment, the 1st Marine Division, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, U.S. Joint Forces Command and finally the United States Central Command.

    General Mattis retired in May 2013. Current law requires that there be a seven-year window between military service and assuming duties as the Secretary of Defense. It is possible for Congress to waive that requirement – it was last done in 1950 for General of the Army George Marshall.

    General Mattis has a stellar reputation in the U.S. defense community, often being cited as one of the premier military leaders and thinkers of his generation. As evidenced by his plain and often colorful remarks about the nature of warfare and the role of the armed forces in national policy, he may be a controversial selection to some of those on the Democratic side of the aisle.

    If nominated by Mr. Trump and confirmed by the Senate – as I expect to happen – he will be a stark contrast to current Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Secretary Carter has gotten high marks for his management of the Department of Defense and the armed forces, but he has been unable to convince President Obama to make needed policy changes in the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

    Mr. Carter was named to his current position after the Administration forced out Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in late 2014. I wrote an article then, The new Secretary of Defense – we need a “wartime consigliere.”

    In that piece, I said, “What we need, to paraphrase Michael Corleone in the movie The Godfather, is a wartime consigliere. The Secretary of Defense is not merely an administrator, but an active participant in the command and control of military operations. Since the passage of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the military chain of command goes directly from the President/Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander.”

    I still think that we need a wartime consigliere. We need a wartime leader to guide the President in the redirection of the war in Afghanistan, the defeat of ISIS, and to direct and oversee the rebuilding of the American military after eight years of atrophy.

    Secretary Carter, from all accounts, has been a successful bureaucrat and manager. He has served with distinction in a variety of positions in the Department of Defense, as well as experienced in academia and consulting.

    However, Mr. Carter is not a wartime consigliere. If nominated and confirmed, General Mattis will be.

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    Is Mike Pompeo the best choice to lead the CIA?

    November 21st, 2016

    By Rick Francona.


    President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo (right) to become the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Is he the best choice for this key position?

    The CIA is more than an intelligence collection, analysis and production agency, although that is its primary role. In addition to managing the National Clandestine Service’s intelligence operations, it is the lead organization of the United States government authorized to conduct covert operations.

    Covert operations are among the most sensitive operations of the country. According to Executive Order 12333 issued by President Ronald Reagan, covert action is defined as special activities, both political and military, that the US Government could legally deny. These include assistance to groups attempting regime change in countries hostile to the United States – Syria comes to mind. The agency also conducts lethal operations (“targeted killing”) against designated terrorist leaders – Anwar al-Awlaki is an example.

    Directing and leading the CIA is a demanding job requiring experience and expertise in foreign policy, military operations and intelligence collection. Has the Agency always been led by directors with such credentials? Obviously not – usually the directors have had one, maybe two of these skill sets, but it is difficult to find someone with all three.

    Unfortunately, at times, the director’s sole “qualification” was being a political favorite of the president.

    First, let me say that Congressman Pompeo has an outstanding record. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), served as an armored cavalry officer in the U.S. Army, earned a law degree from Harvard University, practiced law for a short period of time, and started or managed several successful businesses in the energy and aviation industries.

    As a member of the House of Representatives since being elected in 2010, he has served on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (including the subcommittee on the CIA), and the Committee on Energy and Commerce. He also was a member of the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.

    Based on public records, I don’t see any intelligence or foreign policy experience during his time in the military, as a lawyer or private industry. Although he has served on the House committee that oversees the intelligence community, that in and of itself does not translate to intelligence experience.

    The Congressman’s military experience as a armored cavalry officer will serve him well, but his experience with military intelligence was probably limited to receiving tactical or operational level intelligence reports from the military intelligence company assigned to his armored cavalry regiment. As a captain, his exposure was at a fairly low level and likely at the Secret level – in other words, no access to highly classified material or special access programs.

    President-elect Trump, as with previous presidents, should have the Cabinet members, advisers and agency chiefs that he believes will provide him the best advice and leadership. He obviously has faith and trust in Congressman Pompeo to serve as his CIA director.

    That said, I cannot help thinking that there are more qualified individuals from the armed forces and Defense Department, the intelligence community or the foreign policy ranks that have more applicable experience to lead this vital organization.

    I do, however, wish Congressman Pompeo the best in his new position.

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    The fall of Kabul – 15 years later

    November 17th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.



    On November 14, 2001, the Afghan capital city of Kabul fell to the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance after a short but intense battle. The Northern Alliance was supported primarily by U.S. airpower controlled by American special operations troops and paramilitary officers of the CIA.

    Fifteen years later, what have we accomplished?

    Let’s remember why the United States invaded Afghanistan. Following the al-Qa’idah attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Taliban government of Afghanistan was given the opportunity to respond to a request (actually, it was a demand) to turn over al-Qa’idah leader Usamah bin Ladin to American authorities for trial.

    The Taliban, citing the tribal code known as pashtunwali, refused, claiming that bin Ladin had been granted sanctuary in Afghanistan and turning him over to a foreign power would be a violation of their honor.

    In response, President George Bush authorized the invasion of Afghanistan, pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) passed by the Congress on September 14, 2001 – the President signed it into law four days later. The law authorized the President to employ the armed forces of the United States against those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as any entity who harbored said persons or groups.

    By refusing to turn over Usamah bin Ladin to the United States, the Taliban met the criteria of the authorization. On October 7, 2001, American forces began the campaign known as Operation Enduring Freedom by dropping bombs and firing cruise missiles against Taliban military and communications facilities, as well as al-Qa’idah training camps in the areas of Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat.

    It was the beginning of the longest war in American history.

    On November 14, the capital fell. The Taliban was forced from power, and al-Qa’idah fell back towards the Pakistan border.

    In the battle of Tora Bora – December 6 to December 17 – the United States relied on local Afghan allies, including the Northern Alliance, to arrange the “modalities” of bin Ladin’s capture or surrender. I remember wondering who made that fateful, ill-advised decision – you cannot outsource your fighting. There were additional American troops available, but the U.S. military commander did not commit them to the fight. Big mistake.

    The result was predictable. Whether tribal loyalties came into play, or money changed hands, or some other deal was struck, Usamah bin Ladin escaped across the border into the Pashtun-controlled tribal area of Pakistan. This event should have been a warning about any long term commitment to the Afghans.

    At this point, the American military mission in Afghanistan was essentially complete, only partially accomplished, but complete. Al-Qa’idah no longer had a base of training and operations in Afghanistan, but they merely changed venues. They initially moved to Pakistan – who has been virtually no help – then to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, and even to Syria where they were the predecessor of the so-called and self-proclaimed Islamic State.

    It was not until 2011 that justice was finally delivered to Usamah bin Ladin, then living in relative safety in Pakistan. Yet, for ten years preceding that raid, American forces were involved in a civil war in Afghanistan. Even after the killing of bin Ladin, American forces remain in Afghanistan. After 15 years, we have lost almost 2400 troops killed and over 20,000 wounded. Although the cost is pegged at over $700 billion, the actual costs when long-term medical and disability bills are included is much higher.

    What have we accomplished in Afghanistan since the Battle of Tora Bora that justifies the blood and treasure? It depends on who you ask, but since this is my article, I’ll answer.

    What was the mission? Get al-Qa’idah and bin Ladin – once that was accomplished, the effort should have focused on the remnants of al-Qa’idah, not propping up the Karzai government, what most of us knew was going to a futile effort at creating a representative form of government. We are not very good at this.

    So now we have been there for 15 years, and have accomplished what? The Afghan military is incapable of quelling the violence, the Taliban is on the ascent, and we insist that our “advise and assist” mission is still viable.

    Solution? I guess we first need to define the goals. If it is to defeat the Taliban, say so and deploy enough troops to get it done (I am not advocating that). If it is an inclusive political settlement, get that process moving.

    What we are doing now is not working.

    Not much. Why not? Because have never really defined a mission beyond 2001. Why are we there? To defeat and expel al-Qa’idah from the country? That was accomplished years ago. To defeat the Taliban? The Taliban does not pose a threat to the United States.

    Naysayers will counter that the Taliban will allow al-Qa’idah to return and re-establish training bases, and later mount operations against the United States and/or its allies. I think we have demonstrated that we are capable of devastating the country – again – if the Taliban is stupid enough to allow that to happen.

    In simple terms, tell the Taliban – or whichever corrupt warlord eventually seizes power in arguably the most corrupt country on the planet – that if al-Qa’idah comes back to Afghanistan, so does American military power.

    And we won’t be coming to nation-build….

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    The coming assault on al-Raqqah – a political minefield

    November 1st, 2016

    By Rick Francona.


    According to the senior U.S. commander leading the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an attack on the group’s main stronghold in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah may start soon.

    The timing, according to U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, is being driven by planning and potential execution of terror attacks against Western targets emanating from the ISIS “capital” and main operations center. The general did not name a specific threat or target.

    The announcement comes just weeks after the kickoff of the Iraqi offensive to recapture the city of al-Mawsil (Mosul) from ISIS, who seized the city from Iraqi forces in June 2014. That offensive will possibly take months – the lead Iraqi forces have just reached the city limits.

    The original U.S.-led coalition plan – developed jointly with the Iraqi military – was to have Iraqi forces first surround Mosul, then press the attack and eradicate ISIS in Iraq. In my opinion, the Iraqis launched the attack prematurely, since there are still pockets of ISIS control outside of Mosul. For my analysis on the Iraqi plan, see my earlier article, The Iraqi operation to retake Mosul – are they ready?

    The current operation against Mosul in Iraq has been expected for some time – Iraqi officials have claimed that the city will be back under Iraqi government control by the end of this year. I hope they are right, but I think they may be overly optimistic.

    Likewise, it is no secret that at some point, ISIS must also be removed from its main operations center in al-Raqqah, Syria. One only need look at a situation map of the fighting in Syria to see that ISIS is being pushed back toward al-Raqqah.

    The group is under pressure from U.S.-led air operations, the very effective Syrian Kurdish forces (the YPG), the U.S.-supported and advised Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a joint Syrian Arab and Syrian Kurd armed group), and recently the Turkish supported (air, armor and artillery) Free Syrian Army (FSA) operating northeast of Aleppo. To be fair, there is the infrequent Russian air operation against ISIS, but only in support of Syrian Army operations.

    The Turkish-supported FSA operation in northern Syria, called Operation Euphrates Shield, has sealed off the remaining section of the Syrian-Turkish border from ISIS access. The rest of the Syrian-Turkish border is controlled by the YPG, much to Ankara’s displeasure. The Euphrates Shield forces have been effective in pushing ISIS south and east, but the FSA fighters are still almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah.

    That distance becomes important as the U.S.-led coalition begins planning on just how the fight against ISIS in Syria will be executed. This is a political minefield, not just for the coalition, but for all of the different interested parties in Syria. I find it interesting that the senior American commander is talking about the attack on al-Raqqah, yet represents a country who refuses to commit its ground troops to the fight. That, however, is a topic for another day.

    As in Iraq, all parties are committed to the destruction and/or eradication of ISIS. However, in Iraq, all of the parties are more or less allied in that fight. There are differences between the United States and the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias to be sure, but they are nonetheless of common purpose.

    In Syria, there are at least five anti-ISIS factions, some of which are engaged in combat operations against each other. Let’s take a look at the sides in this multifaceted conflict.

    * First, there is the Syrian government and its allies. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is supported politically by Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Military support is provided by the Russian armed forces, primarily through airpower, as well as ground forces from the Iranian Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and a group of Afghan Shi’a fighters.

    These allies effectively double the size of what remains of the Syrian Army. The Syrian military has been severely crippled by losses and defections to the point that without this external assistance, it would cease to be a viable force.

    * Second, we have the FSA, now supported by the Turkish military. One might question Turkey’s motives in its participation in Operation Euphrates Shield. Although the stated reason is to fight ISIS – and they are doing that – many believe it is to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not create some form of autonomous region in northern Syria as they have in Iraq, or worst case, attempt to merge the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas into one political entity.

    Turkey’s prime minister has made the claim that the Turkish Army will mount the attack on al-Raqqah, rather than allow the Syrian Kurds to do it. The problem with that: the Turks and FSA are 100 miles from al-Raqqah, while the Kurds are only 35 miles from the city.

    * The third faction is the Kurdish militia called the YPG – arguably the most effective fighters arrayed against ISIS. As noted, Turkey is upset over American support for the YPG. The Turks regard the Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish initials, PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and NATO.

    Given the proximity of YPG forces to al-Raqqah, LTG Townsend has stated that they will be involved in the military operation, with the added caveat that he wants only Arab forces to enter and retake the city itself. This is similar to the effort in Mosul, where Iraqi Arabs are supposed to be the only units to actually enter the city, with the Kurds outside to provide support. I don’t think it will work in either Mosul or al-Raqqah – the Kurds represent a much-needed military capability.

    * Fourth, there is the U.S.-supported SDF. These forces are a combination of Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs who are committed to fighting ISIS. They are funded and equipped by the United States, and have American special operations forces embedded to “advise and assist.” These units have been effective in conducting operations against ISIS in eastern and northeastern Syria, with dedicated U.S.-led coalition air support. They will likely be a key part of any assault on al-Raqqah.

    * Fifth, there are anti-regime Islamist groups not affiliated with the FSA or SDF. These include, among others, the former al-Qa’idah affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front) now calling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, the Levant Conquest Front).

    The relationships of these factions vary between temporary tactical alliances to outright hostilities. While they are all anti-ISIS, they are not united in their efforts. As I said, Syria is a political minefield with no one entity in charge or coordinating the overall situation in the country.

    The situation in Syria is confusing and chaotic – it will decrease the effectiveness of any military operation against ISIS in al-Raqqah. Although ISIS will be defeated, the political minefield that is Syria will remain.

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    Erdoğan and Mosul – symptom of a larger problem?

    October 27th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.


    During an address explaining why Turkey must be involved in the Iraqi military operation to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set off alarm bells by displaying a 1920 map of Turkey based on what was then called the misak-i milli (“national oath”).

    On the “National oath” map, the borders of Turkey include portions of what is now Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire prior to its defeat in World War I. The map designates what the Turks believed should be the new borders of their new country.

    President Erdoğan has argued for several months that Turkish troops must participate in the Iraqi military operation against ISIS in Mosul, based on Turkey’s historic ties to that city, as well as the city of Kirkuk, also included in the “national oath” area. Both Mosul and Kirkuk have large Turkmen populations.

    Although the Turks claim that the two cities are majority “Turkmen,” thus validating their claims to the cities or at least to have a say in their future status. However, over the years, Iraq has successfully “Arabized” the cities over the years to alter the demographics — they are now Arab cities.

    To further complicate matters, the Kurds have also laid claim to Kirkuk and have tried to “Kurdize” the city by expelling Arab citizens. During the rapid ISIS advance into northern Iraq in 2014, Kurdish peshmerga took control of Kirkuk to prevent it from falling to the group. I suspect they will be extremely reluctant to relinquish their claim to the city, claiming it now as a part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

    The term “Turkmen” itself is illustrative of the issue. After the war, most of the non-Turkish area of Ottoman Empire was divided up into the modern nations of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (Israel), and the borders with Greece and Bulgaria were adjusted. The British – victors in the war against the Ottomans – coined the term to differentiate the ethnic Turks in what was to become northern Iraq from the population of what was to become modern Turkey. The Turks still bristle at the imposed terminology.

    Erdoğan is not only concerned with the Iraqi military campaign in Mosul – I am sure his military advisers and intelligence service have briefed him on the reality that the Iraqi forces, with U.S.-led coalition support, will eventually retake Mosul. Although the final cost in resources and human life is not yet known, the outcome is not in doubt – the Iraqis will prevail.

    What Erdoğan wants is a say in what happens in northern Iraq after ISIS is expelled. In other words, the Turkish president wants to ensure that the Kurds are kept in check. He is concerned about increased Kurdish influence in Iraq based on their contributions to the Iraqi military effort against ISIS – the Kurds are undoubtedly the most effective arrow in the Iraqi quiver.

    Further, Erdoğan wants to head off any thoughts of a unified Kurdish entity in what is now northern Iraq and northern Syria, called Rojava by the Syria-based Kurds. After ISIS is expelled from Iraq and Syria, as they will be, the Kurds are going to want a reassessment of their status in both Iraq and Syria. Turkey wants to make sure that status is agreeable to Ankara, agreeable to Erdoğan.

    That said, I believe it Erdoğan wants more than just having a say in the future of northern Iraq and northern Syria. The use of the 1920 “national oath” map at his presentation was not accidental – it was there for a reason.

    Turkish demands for a role in northern Iraq, and its military actions in northern Syria are complemented by a series of Turkish air provocations against fellow NATO ally Greece. On at least two occasions, Turkish Air Force F-16’s have penetrated Greek airspace, drawing reactions from the Hellenic Air Force. One incursion is possibly a navigational error in an area of meandering borders, but two distinct incursions in the same area raises the “deliberate” flag.

    At the same time, Erdoğan does not assuage the apprehensions of his neighbors when he openly encourages his young population to question the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which effectively defined Turkey’s borders with its neighbors. These are the borders that define the Middle East as we know it today. As part of that treaty, Turkey relinquished claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, effectively ending the border conflicts that continued for several years after World War I.

    There was a subsequent agreement to the Treaty of Lausanne that dealt specifically with the city of Mosul. The Ankara Pact (1926), based on a commission report of the League of Nations, stated that Mosul should remain part of Iraq. The pact was ratified by Iraq, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

    One cannot help but think of the actions of a recalcitrant Germany in the 1930’s, bristling at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty imposed what the Germans considered to be egregious conditions and sought to to subvert them clandestinely, eventually leading to the birth of a movement that led to the creation of the National Socialist (Nazi) party.

    A segment of the Turkish population, encouraged by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), are echoing a similar refrain, bristling at the terms – imposed or agreed to, depending on where you stand – of the Treaty of Lausanne and the Ankara Pact.

    We should not dismiss Erdoğan’s words as mere rhetoric. He has shown himself to be a capable – if distasteful – political force with a vision for Turkey’s future. His attempts to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to include Turkish troops in the operation to recapture Mosul is a tactical maneuver to stem Kurdish nationalism. Erdoğan considers increased Kurdish influence in Iraq or greater autonomy to be a threat to Turkish national interests.

    What we should be concerned about is Erdoğan’s long-term, strategic vision of Turkey. Are his display of the “national oath” map, decision to provide military support to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria, Turkish air attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria, Turkish Air Force seemingly deliberate incursions into Greek airspace, and not-so-subtle encouragement of Turkish nationalists to challenge the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne and the Ankara Pact a harbinger of things to come?

    Are the Turks intent on at some point reclaiming what they consider to be Turkish territory “stolen” from them almost a century ago? I hope not, but I would not put it past Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


    Personal anecdote: When I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart. Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria.

    The map included a part of Turkey known as the sanjak of Alexandretta, an area ceded to Turkey by the French mandatory authorities in 1936. The Syrians have never recognized that agreement and believe the territory to be still part of Syria.

    At every presentation, the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.

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    Syrian and Egyptian intelligence chiefs meet in Cairo – a smart play by Putin

    October 20th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.

    In a surprise visit, the director of Syria’s National Security Bureau, ‘Ali Mamluk, traveled to Cairo to meet with his Egyptian counterpart, Director of General Intelligence Khalid Fawzi. The two met in the Egyptian capital on October 16 during a visit which lasted only a few hours.

    Mamluk is a key member of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s inner circle, and is under European Union sanctions for his alleged actions against Syrian citizens during the protests that led to the civil war.

    Of note, the visit also coincided with a joint Russian-Egyptian military exercise involving paratroopers from both countries.

    The Russians have been seeking increased influence in Egypt since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated government of Muhammad al-Mursi in 2013 by the current president of Egypt, former chief of the Egyptian armed forces General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi.

    Both Syria and Egypt are involved in military operations against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, and Syria in the north and eastern part of that country. The common enemy was the ostensible, and plausible, reason for the two senior officials to meet.

    Egypt is nominally involved in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, although it has limited its military actions to its own territory and a small operation in Libya. After ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February 2015, the Egyptian Air Force conducted airstrikes on ISIS targets in Darnah, killing 64 members of the group.

    Syrian official media reported that the two intelligence officers “agreed on coordinating stances politically between Syria and Egypt, and boosting coordination for combating terrorism hitting both countries.” That is diplo-speak for the Syria’s claim that Cairo supports the government of Bashar al-Asad.

    Mamluk and Fawzi were probably the two best interlocutors for this meeting. Both have enough stature to represent their respective countries/regimes, with an understanding of realpolitikto be able to discuss issues with candor despite awkward situations.

    The Syrians chose to publicize the meeting of the two officers in a bid to portray Egyptian President al-Sisi as a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The topic was raised at the meeting – the Syrians want all the support they can muster for the continuation of the al-Asad regime in any future Russian-backed political settlement of the civil war in Syria.

    The Egyptian media opted to not report the meeting. I suspect that originally the meeting was supposed to be kept in confidence. Mamluk traveled to and from the meeting in a Syrian Air Force TU-134 jet painted in SyrianAir (the flag carrier airline of Syria) colors*.

    Egypt is in a tough position, and is trying to walk a fine line between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian president has received a lot of backing and support from Saudi Arabia, but earlier this month, Egypt was one of only four countries who voted for a Russian-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria.** This vote came after Russia had vetoed a Saudi-supported French resolution aimed at halting the Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo. Saudi Arabia retaliated by halting the shipment of subsidized oil products to Egypt.

    Egypt has recently strengthened its relationship with the Russian Federation. Much of that was due to the Obama Administration’s decision to halt planned deliveries of additional AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships and spare parts following the removal of Mursi.

    Vladimir Putin, sensing an opening, dispatched his Minister of Defense to Cairo and offered the Egyptians a lucrative arms package. The Egyptians, in need of weapons to continue fighting Islamists on the Libyan border and in the Sinai Peninsula, accepted. For the first time in decades, thanks to the American short-sighted knee-jerk reaction, Russia has regained a foothold in its former client state.

    ‘Ali Mamluk’s visit to Cairo undoubtedly was approved – and possibly instigated – by the Russians. Putin’s main objective in Syria is the survival of the regime of Bashar al-Asad, preferably through a diplomatic/political solution, but by force of (Russian) arms if required. Egypt is a key player in the region – its public support for the al-Asad government plays right into Putin’s plans.

    Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.


    * I have flown on this same aircraft (YK-AYB) in 1994 as the guest of then Minister of Foreign Affairs Faruq Shara’ and Ambassador to the U.S. Walid Mu’alim (now the foreign minister).

    ** Arabic linguist humor: After the Security Council voted down the Russian draft, the United Kingdom ambassador scolded his Russian counterpart, “This text…it’s a sham, just as Russia’s hollow commitment to a political process in Syria is a sham.” Al-Sham (pronounced A-SHAM) is the Arabic word for Damascus, Syria or the Levant, depending on context. See also, What’s in a name? – the Syrian-Iranian car company.

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    The impending Iraqi operation to retake Mosul – are they ready?

    October 18th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.

    The “liberation” (as the Iraqis are calling it) of Mosul from the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been anticipated for some time. Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Haydar al-‘Abadi, have promised to return the city to Baghdad’s control by the end of the year. I have said in the past that although they may be able to start the operation before the end of the year, I am not sure they will be able to complete the operation by then.

    This could be a long, difficult, and bloody battle. ISIS has controlled Mosul since they overran the city in June 2014. They have had well over two years to prepare for what they know is their last major stand in Iraq.

    Based on what we have seen in other cities held by ISIS and retaken by Iraqi forces, ISIS has developed a series of tunnels to allow the group to move men and weapons to where they are needed, as well as placed minefields, improvised explosive devices (IED) and other obstacles, mapped out ambush sites, and prepare scores of vehicle-borne IED’s with suicide drivers willing to confront attacking Iraqi forces. They will likely force civilians to be human shields as they have in other battles. ISIS has claimed that its fighters will fight to the death to defend the city. I believe them – ISIS fighters rarely surrender.

    If and when ISIS is defeated in Mosul, it will only be a matter of time before it is completely eradicated or ejected from Iraq. I believe that given the forces arrayed against ISIS, and the resources dedicated to this operation, the Iraqis will ultimately be successful in retaking Mosul. The question is how much will it cost, in terms of time, resources, city infrastructure, and most importantly, human life.

    According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, the Iraqi forces are ready for the operation in Mosul. All that is necessary is a political decision on the part of Prime Minister al-‘Abadi, which could come at any moment. I hope the general is right, but why did President Obama order another 1,100 U.S. troops to Iraq, remarking yet again that the Americans are not “ground forces,” but there to provide only “training and assistance, logistical support.”

    Iraqi forces will include the Army, Air Force, Special Police and Counter-terrorism units, along with the Kurdish peshmerga and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The PMU include Shi’a militias, as well as some Sunni, Christian, and Yazidi militias. Although Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Army Aviation aircraft will participate, the bulk of air support will be provided by the US-led coalition (mostly U.S. Air Force).

    The Iraqis must put an “Iraqi face” on this effort, that it is all Iraqis working together to liberate Mosul regardless of ethnicity or religious group. This will be critical after the city is cleared of ISIS.

    As the Iraqis continue to push ISIS back into Syria (as well as out of the remaining areas under its control in the western Euphrates Valley), the real challenge will be reconstituting Iraq as a coherent nation. That means working with the Sunnis and Kurds to determine the future of the north – what areas now controlled by the Kurds might be included in the Kurdish autonomous region. For example, Kirkuk was taken from ISIS by the Kurds – I see no indication they are willing to give it up. It has always been the Kurds’ contention that Kirkuk is a Kurdish city – Baghdad does not agree.

    The Iraqis must remove ISIS from Iraq – retaking Mosul is the key. Can the army that lost Mosul to ISIS in 2014 take it back from ISIS in 2016? They have to.

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    Houthi attack on USS Mason – an Iranian challenge? – ADDENDUM

    October 14th, 2016


    By Rick Francona.


    Two days ago (October 10), I wrote an article on a missile attack by the Yemeni Houthis on the USS Mason operating in the Red Sea in international waters. I have included that article in its entirety below.

    Today, that same destroyer was targeted again from Houthi territory in Yemen. The warship fired defensive missiles in response. The ship was not hit or damaged.

    This is what happens when the United States does not respond immediately and decisively to attacks on American ships in international waters. If we fail to respond again to this provocation, we can expect them to continue, not only here but in other places as well.

    If it appears obvious that this Administration will not act to defend its own ships and sailors, other groups – for example, the Iranian IRGC, primary sponsors and supporters of the Houthis – will feel emboldened to also challenge American ships.

    Let me try this with smaller words:

    Memo for the President – At least four lethal missiles have been fired at a U.S. Navy destroyer operating in the Red Sea on your orders. This is a challenge not only to the United States, but to the right of any vessel to operate in international waters.

    If you do not take immediate and decisive action, this will continue and escalate. If that happens, one of these missiles may hit an American ship, causing casualties and possibly the loss of ship itself.

    Take action now, before this gets out of control.

    Previous article:

    OCTOBER 10, 2017

    Houthi attack on USS Mason – an Iranian challenge?

    The headline from the Red Sea is pretty straight forward – two missiles were fired at a U.S. Navy destroyer while the warship was sailing in international waters off the coast off Yemen. The missiles were fired from a coastal area of the country under the control of the Houthis, a Shi’a rebel group sponsored by Iran.

    Fortunately, the missiles did not hit their intended target. According to the Navy, the ship did not sustain any damage nor were any of the crew injured, although the missile impacted close enough to the vessel to trigger on board countermeasures.

    The vessel targeted in the attack was the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87), traveling in company with another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USSNitze (DDG-94), and Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) USSPonce (AFSB(I)-15).

    The three ships were ordered to the Red Sea near the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait in the wake of a Houthi missile attack on the United Arab Emirates logistic vessel HSV Swift on October 1 in this same area.

    The Swift was not so lucky – it was struck by a missile and caught fire. The vessel was formerly under charter to the U.S. Navy, but was sold to the UAE National Marine Dredging Company and was operating under charter to transport humanitarian aid to Yemen and evacuate wounded civilians from the country.

    The missiles used in both attacks are believed to be either a Chinese-built C-802 anti-ship missiles (NATO: CSS-N-8 Saccade) or an Iranian reverse-engineered copy called the Noor. While not technologically advanced, the missiles’ simple design is easy to maintain, easy to operate, and can be very effective.

    As I said, what happened is fairly straight forward, but why would the Houthis open fire on a U.S. Navy warship?

    This is an obvious challenge to any member of the Saudi-led coalition currently conducting airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. The Houthis have warned these nations to avoid Yemeni waters. The United States is a member of the coalition, providing intelligence, logistics and aerial refueling.

    The Houthis may not have been aware of the nationality of the warship, although it would be patently irresponsible to launch a missile at a ship ostensibly in international waters without positive identification.

    It may go further – this may be an indirect challenge to the U.S. Navy by the Iranians, the primary supporters of the Houthis. The Iranian advisers working with the Houthis are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which views the American Fifth Fleet as its primary adversary in the region.

    Over the past few months, there have been numerous provocations in the Persian Gulf by IRGC crews in armed fast boats harassing U.S. Navy warships. Coincidentally, at least one of these incidents involved the USS Nitze and the USS Mason.

    The attack also occurred the day after Saudi aircraft bombed a funeral in Sana, killing more than 100. The Houthis may have been seeking retaliation for what they believe was a deliberate attack. The IRGC issued a statement that the rebel group would avenge the bombing, calling it “a U.S., Saudi, Israeli joint conspiracy.”

    The question now – how does the United States react to what many believe constitutes an act of war?

    The Administration must react decisively. Not doing so will only embolden the Houthis to continue to fire on American warships in the Red Sea, and embolden the Iranians to continue their escalating provocations in the Persian Gulf.

    The Iranians have already assessed this Administration as unwilling to challenge Tehran. Failing to act will only validate that assessment.

    The reaction needs to be stronger than a diplomatic protest from Secretary of State John Kerry – he is already regarded as weak by the Iranians.

    This reaction needs to come via the Department of Defense.

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    The Russian “reset” revisited

    October 11th, 2016

    Does the State Department have any competent Russian linguists?

    Evidently not. Last week’s debacle in Geneva was proof of that. If you have not seen any of the late night talk shows or haven’t seen the news for a few days, here is what happened. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who speaks no foreign languages herself, met with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who is fluent in English, French, and Sinhala (Sri Lankan) as well as his native Russian.

    Clinton: “I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: ‘We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together.’ We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” Lavrov: “You got it wrong.”

    The word over the button is peregruzka – Russian for “overcharge. The word they wanted is perezagruzka.

    It gets even better. The Russian word on the button is written in the Roman alphabet. Russian is written with the Cyrillic alphabet – it should read have read перегрузка for “overcharge” or перезагрузка for “reset.”

    Okay, it was a small gaffe.

    Mr. Lavrov laughed it off and did not embarrass Mrs. Clinton further. Mrs. Clinton should take this as a symptom of the incompetence that is rampant at State Department.

    These are the same people that I pilloried a few years ago when they complained that they might be sent to Iraq. See my article, What is the favorite wine over at State Department?

    Mrs. Clinton needs to clean house over at State.

    The State Department is located in the area of Washington called Foggy Bottom – aptly named, sitting around on their butts in a fog. First up would be the chief of the interpreters. How can the world’s only superpower be taken seriously if it cannot translate a few Russian words?

    This is not simultaneous translation, which – trust me – is intense. This is merely using a dictionary. Language training needs to be a bit higher on the priority list over there at State.

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    Aleppo – the impotence of American diplomacy

    October 5th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.


    The images of the ferocious Russian and Syrian air and missile attacks on Aleppo are heart-breaking – media reports show horrific results. Since the complete collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest attempt to engineer another “cessation of hostilities” between the Syrian coalition and the anti-regime rebels, the fighting has intensified to unprecedented levels.

    Little, if any, humanitarian aid – the heart-string issue that originally drove the recent ceasefire attempt – has arrived for people in besieged Syrian cities, including hundreds of thousands in Aleppo. The United Nations will not deliver aid without security assurances from the Bashar al-Asad government, and that is not forthcoming.

    Russian and Syrian warplanes have launched an astounding number of airstrikes on anti-regime opposition groups, and almost none against positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Moscow’s stated reason for deploying force to Syria. No surprise there.

    What is a surprise is the ferocity of the Russian air and missile campaign against the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo, as well as opposition controlled cities all over the country. The Russians have also introduced new weapons to complement the terror-inducing barrel bombs dropped by Syrian Air Force helicopters.

    The Russians had previously used conventional high-explosive bombs, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) bombs, and some cluster munitions. However, in the last few weeks, they have added phosphorous incendiary bombs, napalm, and huge “bunker buster” bombs called “shaking” bombs by the residents of Aleppo in reference to the earthquake sensations the bombs produce when they penetrate deeply into buildings before they detonate. They have also deployed rocket launchers firing thermobaric and incendiary weapons into Aleppo. It is reminiscent of Russian attacks on Grozny, Chechnya in 1999-2000.

    The Russians and Syrians have gone after the anti-regime rebels with a vengeance, almost as if it is in retaliation for the failure of the ceasefire. The choice of targets in Aleppo is also disturbing – hospitals, blood banks, other medical facilities, civil defense centers, and virtually any infrastructure that might support the rebels in any way. Medical supplies are dwindling fast as doctors attempt to treat the large and increasing number of civilian casualties inflicted by the more lethal ordnance being used.

    Why the savage attacks on Aleppo?

    The Russian goal in Syria is not the defeat of ISIS, although that would be an additional benefit. Their primary interest in Syria is the survival of the Syrian government and its president, Bashar al-Asad. To guarantee that outcome, the Russians need to destroy or defeat the anti-regime rebels, some supported by the United States, others supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Taking Aleppo is a key part of that effort.

    The Syrian Army and their supporters are massing for an eventual ground assault to do just that – the ferocious air and missile campaign is the first phase of that operation. Forces from the Syrian Army, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, Iranian Army, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraq’s Badr Corps Shi’a militia, and Afghan Shi’a militiamen, all backed by Russian artillery and air support, will prove to be too much for the opposition forces in and around the city.

    Aleppo will fall – it is only a matter of time. The city will come back under regime control – it will be used as a base to launch more attacks on other remaining opposition cities, probably starting with Idlib province, the province that sits between regime-controlled territory in Hamah and the newly-captured city of Aleppo.

    If the Russians continue the current pace of air and missile operations and the Shi’a coalition supporting Bashar al-Asad is willing to continue to press the attack on the ground, it is likely that the opposition will be defeated in western Syria. The only viable opposition enclave will be the Kurdish-controlled area in the northwest and northeast areas of the country, and a small Turkish-backed FSA presence between the Kurdish enclaves.

    At that point, the Russians will have been successful in achieving their primary goal – the survival of the Ba’ath regime of Bashar al-Asad. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will have outplayed President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry again.

    The United States will have to reassess its goals in Syria, which since 2011 have included the removal of Bashar al-Asad. The United States may have to settle for solely focusing on its primary objective – the eradication of ISIS and the former al-Qa’idah affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

    As for the removal of Bashar al-Asad, I think it safe to say that window of opportunity is rapidly closing if it has not closed already. Even John Kerry, in leaked conversations reported in the New York Times, has said as much. A reading of Kerry’s comments indicates he would accept a referendum on the continued governance of the al-Asad regime, in stark contrast to the hard-line American foreign policy of five years ago when President Obama said unequivocally that Bashar al-Asad had to go.

    Virtually nothing Secretary Kerry has proposed in Syria has worked – the Russians are now firmly in the driver’s seat. The world, especially our allies in the region who feel this Administration has cozied up to the Iranians at their expense, is witnessing the abject failure American foreign policy in Syria. They worry that, when needed, the United States will not be there for them.

    If I was them, I would be concerned as well.

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    Ahmad Khan Rahami – the ISIS connection

    September 23rd, 2016

    In the official Department of Justice complaints filed against New York and New Jersey bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami, you will not find a connection noted between Rahami and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is there, nonetheless. The complaint did point to a connection between Rahami and al-Qa’idah.

    First, here is the connection. Here is the text that is readable from a key page in Rahami’s blood-stained journal. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of jihadi Arabic terminology will see this immediately. I have expanded it for those who do not.

    Raw text:

    “…back to sham. But __ this incident show the risk are ___ of getting caught under ___. ___ I looked for guidance and alhumdulilah guidance came from Sheikh Anwar & Brother Adnani of Dawla. Said it clearly attack the kuffar in their backyard.”

    My expansion:

    “…back to Syria. But __ this incident shows the risks are ___ of getting caught under ___. ___ I looked for guidance and thank God, guidance came from Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki and Brother Abu Muhammad al-Adnani of the Islamic State (ISIS). It said it clearly: attack the infidels in their backyard.”

    Anwar al-Awlaki was a longtime propagandist for al-Qa’idah. A native born American citizen, he was responsible for inspiring and directing scores of terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at the United States. These attacks included Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the “underwear bomber”) and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. Awlaki was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen in September 2011.

    Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was the ISIS spokesman and its chief of external operations, responsible for a series of attacks in Europe, including the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 bombings in Brussels. Adnani was killed in a U.S. airstrike near Aleppo on August 30, 2016.

    Now, here is why I think the ISIS-Rahami connection is missing.

    This Administration, and hence its Department of Justice and Department of State, does not want these attacks to be tied to ISIS. It does not fit President Obama’s narrative – remember the “JV team” and the fact that he created the conditions that led to the rise of the organization that rapidly took over 30 percent of Iraq and Syria?

    The fact that ISIS can inspire attacks in the United States shows the failure of the President’s plan to eradicate ISIS. What the Administration does not want are constant references to ISIS while the Rahami case progresses through the justice system.

    Ahmad Khan Rahami will be tried in the federal court system and if convicted, will spend the rest of his days at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility, more commonly referred to as “the Supermax” in Florence, Colorado, in the company of many of his Islamist compatriots. If we can’t send them to Guantanamo anymore, the Supermax will do.

    That said, for the Administration – and the orders emanate from the White House – to ignore the ISIS connection is at best disingenuous, and at worst obstruction of justice.

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    American-Russian cooperation in Syria – what could go wrong?

    September 17th, 2016

    Secretary of State John Kerry insists that the ceasefire in Syria is holding. I am not sure what metrics he is using to measure compliance, but anyone reading media accounts readily available on the internet, be they from the Syrian government or the various opposition groups, would say that violations are constant and range from the north to the south of the country.

    The violations include Syrian Air Force helicopters dropping their dreaded barrel bombs in areas in which there is no designated terrorist presence. Designated terrorist groups are generally defined as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the former al-Qa’idah affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front), now calling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (The Conquest of the Levant Front, or JFS). Of course, the Syrian government believes that anyone involved in the opposition is a terrorist and thus a valid target.

    Artillery fire has been exchanged by virtually all parties in various parts of the country, including in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and in the besieged areas of Aleppo. As far as I can tell, no aid has yet reached the besieged sections of Aleppo. Secretary Kerry cited the humanitarian assistance provisions of the ceasefire as a key reason to accept an obviously flawed agreement. Mr. Kerry said after the agreement was reached that he will accept merely a “reduction in violence” as a measure of success.

    Since the terms of the current “cessation of hostilities” does not include – as far as we can tell – any enforcement mechanism, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad continues to bomb opposition groups. They may be trying to inflict as much damage on these groups while they can. Although Mr. Kerry has not seen fit to completely tell us what is actually in the agreement between himself and his Russian counterpart, we are led to believe that once the U.S. and Russian forces begin cooperating and coordinating the fight against ISIS and JFS, the Syrian Air Force will be precluded from attacks on these non-terrorist opposition groups.

    If the ceasefire holds for seven days (that would be until Monday), the Americans and Russians will establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to not only deconflict their air operations, but actually cooperate and coordinate airstrikes on ISIS and JFS. The JIC will be manned by intelligence specialists and operations officers. As with most military operations against non-state actors, this will be an intelligence driven effort.

    As I ask above, what could go wrong?

    Actually, a lot can go wrong. By necessity, we will have to provide not only operational information to the Russians, but sensitive intelligence information as well. That always comes with risk. Unless I missed something in what we know of the agreement, this is not a long-term intelligence exchange agreement with the Russians – they remain one of our primary adversaries.

    Having been involved in operations in which I provided U.S. intelligence information to foreign intelligence services, you can try and protect the sources and methods used to gather and produce the information, but when you are dealing with professional intelligence officers, they will be able to glean a fair assessment of American intelligence capabilities.

    Since the agreement – again, as we understand it – will preclude attacks on non-terrorist opposition groups, we will have to provide intelligence information on the locations of these groups, including those groups supported by the United States. If we think that information will not be relayed to the Syrian armed forces headquarters in Damascus, we are being terribly naive.

    When, and I believe it is when and not if, this current ceasefire agreement completely collapses, the Syrian Air Force will once again take to the skies, this time armed – albeit indirectly – with excellent U.S. intelligence information on the location of the non-terrorist opposition groups.

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the American-Russian coordinated operation against ISIS and JFS is successful – and it may very well be. American aircraft delivering precision guided munitions combined with the Russians’ almost complete disregard for civilian casualties has the potential to eradicate the scourge of ISIS and JFS.

    Then we turn to the future of Syria. At that point, the Americans and Russians will have removed Bashar al-Asad’s greatest threats from the battlefield. In the absence of ISIS and JFS, and possibly other effective Islamist opposition groups, the remaining rebels – primarily the Free Syrian Army – will not have the military power to remove the Syrian regime, nor force it to the negotiating table.

    The Syrian regime, likely still supported by Russian airpower and special forces, Iranian troops, Hizballah fighters as well as Iraqi Shi’a and Afghan Shi’a militias, will simply pivot and take on the remaining opposition. They will almost certainly be successful.

    In that case, Russia and Iran will have achieved their foreign policy objective, that being the survival of the Ba’ath regime of Bashar al-Asad; we will have failed in ours.

    That’s what can go wrong.

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    The impending showdown in Syria’s skies

    August 21st, 2016

    By Rick francona.



    I appeared earlier today on CNN Newsroom – Martin Savidge in the anchor chair. Martin and I have been on the air together before – he is an excellent interviewer, and today was no exception.

    The image of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year old Syrian child from the virtually-destroyed city of Aleppo, has gone viral across all media. Martin asked me if I thought this haunting image could impact us enough to actually bring about change, even a stop to the violence in Syria, or will we continue on as before?


    Unfortunately, I hope for the former, but I believe the later to be true. Although the image has drawn attention to the horrors of the conflict that has defined Syria since 2011, the fighting has not subsided in the least. In fact, over the past few days, the situation has deteriorated even further.

    The Russians continue their wide-scale air attacks, including what appear to be deliberate strikes on hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as obvious civilian targets such as markets, bakeries and even schools and mosques. See my earlier article, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals – war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

    In the last few days, Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea have begun attacks on anti-regime rebel targets using sea-launched cruise missiles – adding to earlier use of similar cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea.

    Additionally, Russian Tu-22M3M (NATO: Backfire C) strategic bombers have staged from the Iranian air base in Hamedan to mount attacks on mostly anti-regime targets in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, as well as targets of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the eastern province of Dayr al-Zawr. For more on the Russian use of this air base, see my article, Russian use of Iranian air base – makes military sense.


    Fighting has now spread to the Kurdish-majority area of northeastern Syria. Two regime-held enclaves, one in the city of Qamishly and another in the city of Hasakah, have come under attack from elements of the People’s Protection Units, usually referred to by their Kurdish abbreviation YPG.

    The YPG is the armed force of the self-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria, or in Kurdish, Rojava. The group is primarily Kurdish, but also recruits Arabs, Assyrian/Syriac Christians, and even Turks and a few Westerners.


    Hasakah and Qamishly enclaves in northeast Syria are marked by red dots


    These enclaves are small holdouts far from Syrian regime lines and have been mostly resupplied by air and armed convoys. The attacks by the YPG coincide with the recent deployment of U.S. special operations forces working with a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of YPG and Arabs who are both anti-ISIS and anti-regime.

    It is here in the northeastern part of Syria that we may see what many of us have been warning about since the beginning of U.S. air operations against ISIS targets in Syria in 2014, and exacerbated by the Russian air intervention in 2015.


    At some point, fighter aircraft of the United States, its coalition allies (including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, etc.), Russia and Syria will be operating in the same airspace – it is inevitable that there will be a confrontation.

    That time may be nigh. With the expansion of the fighting into northeastern Syria, the Syrian Air Force has twice sent their Su-24M2 (NATO: Fencer D) fighter-bombers to attack YPG targets they believe are threatening the pro-regime areas of Hasakah.


    While the U.S.-led coalition has up until not now committed force to oppose Syrian air attacks, the situation in the Hasakah area is different – there are American troops on the ground nearby.

    The U.S. Department of Defense has warned the Syrians against air strikes in this area, via a variety of communications channels, including advising the Russians to notify the Syrians that any potential threat to American forces will be met with force. The Syrians should make no miscalculations about the capability of the U.S. Air Force to neutralize any threat posed by the Syrian Air Force. The only question is the political will to actually commit that force. American fighters, including the state-of-the-art fifth generation stealth F-22 Raptor, have begun protective patrols in the area should a response be required.


    That said, the Syrians show no signs of backing down. It is very possible that in the next few days, we could see an air battle between Syrian Air Force and U.S. Air Force pilots in the skies of northeastern Syria. If and when that happens, a whole new series of issues will come to the forefront, challenges for which I hope the U.S. Central Command is prepared. Of course, the main question – will the Russian Air Force come to the aid of their Syrian allies?

    What we do not need is an aerial battle between American and Russian pilots in the skies of Syria. This is exactly why the United States and Russia have established an air operations coordination center in Jordan.

    Let’s hope it works.

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    Intelligence reporting tailored to fit the Obama narrative?

    August 18th, 2016


    By Rick Francona.



    Was intelligence reporting by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the combatant command responsible for American military operations in the Middle East, skewed to fit more optimistic assessments of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? According to a report titled Initial Findings of the House Joint Task Force on CENTCOM Intelligence Analysis (read it here), it appears that it was.

    First, a few words – some by way of disclaimer and some by way of explanation. The men and women serving in the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate, or the J2, are serious professionals performing a demanding and necessary function.


    I know – for nine months I was detailed from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to CENTCOM J2 in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When I was not performing duties as General Norman Schwarzkopf’s Arabic interpreter, I worked in several positions within the intelligence directorate, mostly in a liaison role with our Arab allies.

    The Director of Intelligence at that time was U.S. Army Major General Jack Leide–airborne Ranger, combat infantryman, former defense attache in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crisis – a no-nonsense soldier who you knew had your back. I saw him make some tough, unpopular calls–tailoring intelligence while American forces were engaging the enemy would not have happened on his watch.


    This Congressional task force report is damning. It should be – deliberately altering intelligence is unconscionable.

    That said, this should not be a reflection on the analysts at CENTCOM. In fact, it exonerates those who were brave enough to come forward and blow the whistle on the skewing of intelligence, or as we call it, “cooking the intel” to support a particular position or narrative.



    As many of you know, I am an on-air military analyst for CNN. I offer analysis and commentary to CNN’s worldwide cable television audiences as well as provide input for other CNN reporting – it is a position I enjoy and hope that it provides useful insight to our viewers. However, no one is moving troops based on what I say on television.

    Conversely, the reporting by the CENTCOM J2 analysts is used by military commanders to do just that. Civilian leadership may use their analyses in making the decision to send young American men and women into harm’s way. Having been in harm’s way, I want the difficult decision putting our troops’ lives at risk to be based on the best information possible – that requires accurate, unvarnished intelligence.

    When this issue surfaced a year ago, I wrote an article, Is your government lying to you about the war against ISIS? I also appeared on several CNN broadcasts with my fellow military analysts, all voicing the same concerns. All of our comments were–and remain–in line with the analysis in that article.

    As I read the Task Force Report, I was bothered by several things. Not once in the report is the name of the CENTCOM director of intelligence at the time of these alleged breaches of trust mentioned. When we are talking about skewed intelligence from an American combatant command and hoping to hold someone accountable, I would expect to see the name of that officer.

    The director of intelligence was U.S. Army Major General Steve Grove. In candid interviews, CENTCOM J2 analysts have used pretty harsh language about General Grove as well as the CENTCOM commander, U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin. They described the command climate as “Stalinist” and General Austin as an “uninspired political animal” seeking to curry favor with the Obama Administration.

    While General Austin set the tone for the command and is ultimately responsible for the alternate reality put forth by the command, most of the analysts singled out General Grove as the officer who directly altered their assessments of American efforts in Iraq, specifically the status of the war against ISIS.

    There are some recurrent themes in the report that I think are important. If you are not familiar with the workings of military intelligence, I don’t recommend reading through the entire report. Here are the key issues, as I see them, in plain language:


    – CENTCOM intelligence analysts followed established best practices in the production of intelligence products. However, the senior leadership in the J2–that would be General Grove–edited the reporting to align more closely with claims from the operations personnel in theater.


    This is a common problem, and a dangerous one. Military personnel serving on the ground as trainers and advisers with Iraqi Security Forces made their reports, highlighting whatever successes were achieved by their efforts. However–and I have personal experience with this as a military adviser–these personnel are too close to the issue and often at too low a level to adequately assess the success–or failure–of particular programs and operations.


    – CENTCOM assessments of the success of U.S.-led coalition air operations were often more optimistic than information available via intelligence channels. At some point, intelligence reports were “softened” to fit the narrative that coalition airstrikes were having greater effect than being reported from reliable sources of intelligence information.


    This was especially egregious as coalition pilots were operating under strict rules of engagement and in many cases were not cleared to use their weapons, often returning to base without engaging available targets. The two stories did not add up.


    – CENTCOM’s intelligence assessments, developed at CENTCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida were often at odds with other elements of the U.S. intelligence community. Given the intelligence dissemination capabilities of the American intelligence system, for the most part all of the analysts throughout the intelligence community have access to the same information. Yet, CENTCOM’s assessments were much more optimistic than other agencies.

    It is almost as though the command used whatever information was available to support the Administration narrative that ISIS posed much less of a threat than it did, and that CENTCOM actions were taking more of a toll on ISIS than they were. This is the very definition of “cooking the intel,” telling decision makers what they wanted to hear.

    A particularly troubling passage at the end the report:


    (U) The Joint Task Force is troubled that despite receiving the whistleblower complaint in May 2015 and receiving alarming survey results in December 2015, neither CENTCOM, DIA, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, nor [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] have taken any demonstrable steps to improve the analytic climate within CENTCOM.
    The survey results alone should have prompted CENTCOM and [Intelligence Community] (IC) leaders to take corrective action without other inducements. During interviews, however, multiple Intelligence Directorate senior leaders challenged the legitimacy of the survey results rather than taking responsibility for them.
    This is, unfortunately, characteristic of the IC’s response to the situation at CENTCOM: leadership within CENTCOM, ODNI, and DIA attempted to diminish the significance of the allegations and the survey comments, despite significant evidence indicating widespread problems with morale.
    DNI [James] Clapper downplayed reports of potential issues at CENTCOM, referring to them as “media hyperbole” and attributing the complaints to disgruntled analysts. These statements, and others, by senior IC leadership to downplay the significance of the incidents at CENTCOM were an inappropriate response from individuals charged with leading the IC in preserving analytic integrity.


    The new CENTCOM commander, U.S. Army General Joe Votel and his new director of intelligence, U.S. Army Major General Mark Quantock, have their work cut out for them. They need to restore confidence in the command and start providing realistic intelligence and operational assessments. They must tell the President what he needs to hear, not what they think he wants to hear.

    The big question, though, remains unanswered. Who, if anyone, pressured General Grove to alter the intelligence to fit the Obama Administration narrative. Was it General Austin, someone at the Department of Defense, or someone at the White House?

    That person must be held accountable for this debacle.

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    Nice – Standing with our first and oldest ally

    July 15th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.


    I was busy writing an article about an American proposal for combined American and Russian air operations against the al-Qa’idah affiliated Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as several Syrian anti-regime rebel groups that have been designated as terrorists.

    Then the breaking news – the attack in Nice.

    I will let the media report on the developing story – the pictures and stories are horrific and heartbreaking. As usual when we have these terrorist attacks – granted, we do not yet know the affiliation of the perpetrator – there is an attempt to express our solidarity with the local population by creating overlays on our Facebook profiles. I have done the same in the past, and created one today – I overlayed my profile photo with the coat of arms of the city of Nice.

    In the caption of the photograph, I wrote, “Our thoughts are with America’s oldest ally.”

    I thought it would be illustrative to expand on my comment, since many Americans are not very familiar with an alliance that was in a large way responsible for the successful conduct of the Revolutionary War.

    After the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, very few – well, none – other countries were willing to recognize the United States, let alone provide assistance in its fight against the world’s premier military power. The thought that a rag-tag group of rebellious farmers could hold their own against well-trained, well-equipped and well-led British forces was laughable.

    For their own reasons, the French recognized the United States in 1778 – the two countries signed a treaty which, among other provisions, promised the new country French military support in case of attack by British forces indefinitely into the future. A French fleet arrived in the United States in 1780.

    The French were present in the fight against the British until the final battle at Yorktown in 1781. If you have not walked the battlefield there, I highly recommend it – the area is well-marked and nicely interpreted. The positions of the French forces were perfectly placed to counter the British under the command of Lord Cornwallis.

    I often speak about the French alliance, facetiously remarking that if it were not for the French forces at Yorktown in 1781 – both naval and army – under the command of Comte de Rochambeau, we would all be speaking English. Facetious, yes, but when no one else would help the newly formed United States, the French stepped up and sent a fleet and troops. We may owe our freedom and independence to them.

    We Americans have repaid the debt, some say several times over. On July 4, 1917 – during the intense fighting that was World War I – a U.S. Army infantry battalion marched to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. The French aristocrat had led American troops in the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War – it was Lafayette’s troops that fought a blocking action against British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves for the final battle at Yorktown.

    At the tomb, the battalion commander, Colonel Charles Stanton, uttered the now famous words that signify the bond between the two countries, “Lafayette, nous voilà” (Lafayette, we are here).

    On a much less significant, but personal note. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

    I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, “In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil.” A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, “You are welcome in France.”

    The alliance remains – American and French troops serve side by side around the world, currently fighting the scourge that is ISIS. France has been attacked on numerous occasions and again tonight.

    When we needed them, the French stood with us. Now we need to stand with them.

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    South China Sea: Is China upping the stakes?

    May 25th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.



    (CNN)Two Chinese J-11 fighter aircraft carried out an “unsafe” intercept of a United States EP-3E “Aires II” reconnaissance aircraft in

    international airspace over the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

    During the incident, which took place Tuesday, the fighters reportedly came within 50 feet (15 meters) of the Navy plane.
    Flying two supersonic fighter jets within 50 feet of a four-engine turboprop aircraft is dangerous, especially when the pilots cannot communicate effectively with each other, nor are the intentions of the intercepting aircraft clear.
    One mistake, either in judgment or airmanship, could result in a lethal incident.
    This is not theory — it has happened in this same airspace with almost the identical participants. In April 2001, a Navy EP-3E was intercepted by a Chinese J-8 fighter.
    The Chinese pilot misjudged the distance between his fighter and the Navy aircraft. He attempted to do a zoom climb from under the aircraft and pull up immediately in front of the cockpit. He clipped the aircraft, lost control and crashed, resulting in his death.
    The EP-3E was severely damaged and was saved only by the skill of the flight crew.
    Unfortunately, the crippled plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese air base – thereby compromising the technical capabilities of the aircraft’s electronic intelligence gathering capabilities.


    Intercepts routine?
    Every time the Chinese intercept either the United States Air Force (USAF) or Navy reconnaissance aircraft that routinely operate in international airspace off the Chinese coast, the 2001 incident is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
    Unless the Chinese exercise control of these situations, we could have another collision, needless deaths and yes, an international incident that lead to even greater consequences.
    There is nothing untoward about intercepting aircraft operating close to a country’s coast or borders.
    The United States routinely intercepts unidentified aircraft approaching our coasts or borders.
    Armed fighters will approach the aircraft and identify it to officers at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). Once the aircraft is deemed to not be a threat, or in the case of a foreign reconnaissance flight (the Russians conduct flights routinely) when it turns away, the fighters return to base.
    Although there is an agreement in force with the Chinese to prevent military incidents, it only calls for annual meetings to discuss the issue.
    There are no specific protocols on how the military forces are to conduct themselves when in close proximity to each other.
    Contrast this with the agreements between the United States and Russia which spell out very specifically minimum separation distances. That protocol calls for a minimum vertical distance of 1,000 feet and a horizontal distance of 1,500 feet.
    Fortunately, these incidents with the Chinese are not that common.
    Usually the Chinese broadcast verbal warnings on international distress frequencies demanding that the U.S. aircraft change course and depart the area, often claiming that the aircraft are violating Chinese airspace.


    Sensitive area
    The area in which this incident occurred is particularly sensitive for the Chinese.
    Not only are they enlarging uninhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea and building airstrips, they have deployed military aircraft and air defense missile systems as well. The sovereignty of these islands is contested by other countries in the region.
    The Chinese may be watching the increased tensions between the United States and Russia.
    On several occasions over the last few months, the Russians have harassed U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Japan in what is almost certainly an orchestrated attempt to provoke an American reaction.
    If the United States alters its behavior based on the Russian recent aggressive intercepts, it may embolden the Chinese to act in a similar confrontational matter, hoping to keep American reconnaissance flights from operating close to their coast.
    It won’t work.
    The United States will continue to conduct lawful aerial reconnaissance missions in international airspace off China.
    The Chinese have already provoked one incident — with lethal consequences. One misunderstanding, one misjudgment, one mistake – that’s all it takes to move us to the brink of an international crisis.
    These incidents are likely to continue until specific protocols are worked out between the two countries. Thus far, the Chinese have shown no interest in lessening the tension — they believe this is Chinese airspace.

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    Iraq – Goals of the ISIS bombing campaign

    May 19th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.



    Over the past few months, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of bombings in and around Baghdad – it has become almost a daily occurrence. The bombs include improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide vests.

    As was to be expected, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the all of the bombings. The attacks have killed over 200 hundred Iraqis, virtually all of them Shi’a Arabs – avowed enemies of the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

    The bombing campaign represents a shift in tactics for the group and follows a series of battlefield losses for ISIS. As the Iraqi Security Forces (the catch-all term for the Army, national police, special units and Shi’a militias) regroup after dismal showings following the collapse of the units defending Mosul in 2014, they are beginning to retake territory from ISIS.

    Much of that success is due to increased effectiveness of U.S.-led coalition airpower and effective targeting of ISIS leaders and facilities based on more accurate intelligence. This reflects the increased presence of American troops on the ground and development of better intelligence sources.

    As the more effective military operations take their toll on ISIS, the group has fallen back, giving up territory in al-Anbar province and the Euphrates River valley. Their supply and communications lines used to move forces and resources between Iraq and Syria have been cut.

    At the same time, Iraqi forces – this time with not only American airpower, but direct fire support from U.S. Marine field artillery and rocket launcher systems – have pushed north up the Tigris River valley. These forces are shaping the battlefield for the inevitable assault to re-assert Iraqi government control over Mosul and the northern parts of the country now occupied by ISIS.

    According to U.S. officials, ISIS is no longer attempting to seize more territory in Iraq, or Syria for that matter. I agree with that assessment – the group is consolidating its defense of Mosul and limiting its offensive operations to re-establishing its lines of communications. This, however, is a losing strategy – they must find a way to stop the Iraqi forces’ momentum at a time when U.S. and coalition support to the Iraqis is on the rise.

    After almost two years, the now-constant air strikes – finally, the increased operations tempo I have been calling for – are taking a toll. Unless ISIS changes its strategy, it is only a matter of time before the resources available to the Iraqi government isolates and destroys it.

    Hence, ISIS’s renewed relentless bombing campaign. The number of attacks and the breadth of the areas being struck reminds us that the organization is still capable of inflicting large numbers of casualties, especially against relatively undefended targets. The targets ISIS has selected for this campaign certainly meet that description – markets, sporting event venues and any areas where large numbers of people gather.

    ISIS has several goals in this bombing campaign. The ultimate goal, of course, it to create so much mayhem and resulting public outcry against the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-‘Abadi that the Iraqis reassess their military operations aimed at retaking Mosul. Taking a page from the basic guerrilla handbook, they are attempting to create “significant emotional events” – events that so traumatize the body politic that the people will demand the government change its tactics.

    It has a small change of success, depending on how effective the bombing campaign becomes. The Iraqi people – more accurately, the Shi’a population of Baghdad and its environs who are the focus of the bombings – are already criticizing the government’s seeming impotence to stop the attacks, and demanding increased security measures to protect them.

    The government is vulnerable to this tactic, and ISIS is smart to exploit this vulnerability, The Iraqi government has finite resources in the security forces. These forces are spread thin trying to fight ISIS in the Euphrates valley and moving up the Tigris valley while at the same time providing security in the capital. The Shi’a population in and around Baghdad is more concerned with its own security than the eventual liberation of the Sunni areas around Mosul.

    ISIS has forced the Iraqi government into a situation in which it has two choices: continue the military operations against ISIS and risk alienating the Shi’a population – its political power base in Baghdad, or pull forces back from the various combat fronts to provide better security in the capital, which in essence cedes territory to the terrorist group. Unfortunately, the Iraqis cannot do both.

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    Obama press secretary Josh Earnest insults American killed in combat

    May 5th, 2016

    By Rick Francona.



    (Josh Earnest )

    I was offended and insulted by statements made by President Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest concerning the death of U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV. Petty Officer Keating died in combat in Iraq on May 3 – he was one of a group of SEALs assisting Kurdishpeshmerga troops in their defense of an Assyrian Christian town north of Mosul against an assault by more than a hundred fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


    (Charles Keating IV.)

    The SEALs were in the area as part of their mission to “advise and assist” Iraqi security forces in their fight against ISIS. According to the Obama Administration, the deployment of members of the U.S. armed forces to “advise and assist” does not constitute a combat mission, despite the fact that the units being provided advice and assistance are engaged in combat operations, and much of that assistance comes in the form of direct control of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy airstrikes.

    The Administration can spin that as it likes, but anyone with a modicum of common sense realizes that this is nothing more than political drivel to fit a narrative that American troops are not involved in combat operations. It fails the common sense test.

    You can listen to Earnest’s pitiful attempts to parse the difference between “combat” and “combat mission” in this video clip. I wonder if he actually believes his own words – then again, how would be know the difference? He, nor virtually anyone else on the White House staff, has ever worn a uniform.

    “What I am trying to do though is to be as precise as possible with you and the American public about what exactly our Commander in Chief has asked our service members to do. Secretary Carter earlier today described this death as a combat death – that’s accurate. This is an individual who was not in a combat mission but he was in a dangerous place…and his position came under attack. He was armed, trained and prepared to defend himself. Unfortunately, he was killed…and he was killed in combat, but that was not part of his mission. His mission was specifically to offer advice and assistance to those Iraqi forces fighting for their own country.” 

    Mr. Earnest, I realize your job is to spin reality into a form that fits a narrative dictated by your political masters at the White House, but the more you speak the less believable the words are. I suppose you have a tight definition that somehow explains that our pilots – of all services – flying over Iraq and Syria, many of them dropping ordnance on ISIS personnel and positions – are not “in a combat mission.” How do you spin delivering ordnance as an “advise and assist” mission.

    Additionally, on the day the Petty Officer Keating was killed, you began the daily press briefing with a detailed litany of the President’s scheduled visit to Flint, Michigan, adding your remarks on the the death of an American sailor killed in action in Iraq only when specifically asked by members of the press. Your canned remarks appeared to be an afterthought. One has to wonder if you would have mentioned it at all had you not been prodded by a reporter.

    “I can tell you the president has been briefed on this incident, and everyone here at the White House, including the First Family, extends our condolences to the family of the service member that was killed today in northern Iraq. This individual was the third U.S. service member killed in action since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve, and this service member’s death reminds us of the risks our brave men and women in uniform face every single day.”

    Rings hollow, doesn’t it?

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