Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is in Washington today to meet President Obama. To set the stage yesterday, U.S. Central Command—the military command charged with advancing U.S. interests in the Middle East—announced that ISIS has lost control of 25 to 30 percent of its territory since August. The Pentagon briefing map, pictured below, is meticulous in its utter irrelevance.
The Pentagon spokesmen said that "coalition forces" expected to clear Tikrit of ISIS/ISIL "relatively soon" and that the front line "has been pushed either west or south, depending on location." I believe that the "coalition forces" Army Col. Steve Warren was referring to are U.S., Iraqi, and Kurdish Iraqi forces, and possibly the Syrians in Damascus, but we don't talk about them; and maybe the Iranians and the Turks, who have certainly given an assist, and the NATO coalition members participating; and, hell, let's throw the Canadians in there, too. They flew their first bombing mission last week in support of Operation IMPACT, which is part of Operation Inherent Resolve, which is part of Operation New Dawn, which followed Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was an extension of Operation Enduring Freedom, which was Operation Infinite Justice before Allah's public affairs office rejected that moniker as politically incorrect. We'll keep fighting until we get the name right.
But the announcement of the "coalition's" dramatic advances in Iraq went unheralded; only the Military Times gave the story major play. How could it be that CENTCOM announces a 25 percent gain/progress/advance/victory the day before the Iraqi Prime Minister is meeting with the American President, and the news fails to make the front pages of any mainstream newspaper?
The answer is that no one reports because CENTCOM is clueless. It's not just routine American cluelessness, or gross incompetence in the region—it's something endemic to the military and the way these combat commands view the world.
I've been looking at CENTCOM documents recently, trying to divine American strategy, the command's worldview, and its overall expertise and authority to tell us anything about today or tomorrow. And I think I've come up with part of the answer.
Though the fight against ISIS dominates the news, CENTCOM's worldview is shaped by an laundry list of horrors. First comes the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, in the weird world of the military, is dominant but rarely spoken about. In the bulging minds of the "strategic thinkers," weapons of mass destruction are always the trump card, which in the past meant Iraq and now means Iran and possibly Pakistan and India and Israel—any cross-examinations of the real world gets unpleasant. And then there's oil and that means Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and the strategic chokepoints of locations taught in graduate schools. Post-9/11, there's the buzzword of "ungoverned spaces" and the scourge of instability, which means, well, everywhere, which sort of means ISIS (which the military calls ISIL) when al-Qaeda doesn't sound worse, in which case al-Qaeda is preferred.
Don't believe me? Gawker has obtained an official statement of the "Strategic Environment," one approved by CENTCOM Commander General Lloyd J. Austin, III, last September. It doesn't mention Yemen and barely acknowledges ISIS, but this is the "strategic environment," and, as such, it is supposed to reflect the big picture.
CENTCOM's last approved "Strategic Environment" (February 2014) was virtually identical to its current one. On some level that might be a good thing, except that every change is reflective of some buzzword or nuance in Washington that merely strengthens the hand of the command. For instance, in its latest approved statement, CENTCOM adds the words "threatening global security" to its description of "a resilient al-Qaeda movement." It isn't that al Qaeda didn't threaten global security before (at least in the crazy minds of the U.S. government); it's more that "threatening global security" is the official language that comports with the latest White House articulations of what is top priority.
Testifying before Congress last month, Austin said his troops have "the right strategy in place to safeguard our interests, to effectively address challenges and pursue opportunities, and ultimately to accomplish our mission on behalf of the Nation."
"We are confident that our actions in pursuit of these opportunities will continue to produce positive results in the coming days," Austin blustered. Not so confident that he doesn't need more money, though: "Without question, our ability to do so and our overall readiness are put at grave risk by the continued reductions made to the defense budget...."
Bombing here, bombing there, special operations, naval patrols, drone flights and strikes, intelligence collection galore—despite "withdrawals" from Afghanistan and Iraq, the activity is constant and enduring. The U.S. military presence in the Middle East, at this point, must be labeled permanent. Another CENTCOM slide from an internal PowerPoint briefing, obtained by Gawker, inadvertently reveals that secret priority.
Forget operations. In the next five years, the United States is planning to spend $3.5 billion on military construction, almost exclusively in the Gulf region, to prepare for the future. Internal documents state: "The footprint in this region is more robust because of the probability of conflict is greater, the region is more strategically significant, our legacy infrastructure is located in the region and it is centrally located within the theater." They're not bases: They are officially called "enduring locations."
One more slide: CENTCOM's annual conference assessing the horizon. The problem statement from this 2014 briefing is bracing. "The CENTCOM AOR [Area of Responsibility] after a decade of war has become a tightly wound complexity of perilous political, economic and socio-cultural undercurrents and constants exacerbated by conflict, poverty, and corrupt, ineffective or inefficient institutional growth."
And yet what are the issues? Everything, from Chinese, Russian and Indian interests in the region to demographics to a Sinai war that no one speaks about. What is it that we are asking our military to do? Control the world?
CENTCOM is clueless because the United States doesn't have a clue about what to do in the Middle East. U.S. Central Command—part warfighter, part cheerleader; part Nate Silver and part Mister Magoo—is overwhelmed by more than a half dozen conflicts, a buffeted and overwhelmed jack-of-all-trades that everyone relies on and yet doesn't really have the brainpower to do the job. It's not a matter of limited resources, it's not simply bad luck and bad timing, and it isn't just that all problems are thrust into the laps of the military. Far too often, we hear that lament: that the military would be magnificent if the White House, State Department, bureaucrats, lawyers—you fill in the blank—didn't mess things up. It would indeed be inspiring if the command followed some dogged path toward improving security or reducing the carnage. But all of this evidence indicates it is just unfocused and cliched; preparing to prepare, fighting to make and remake maps, and announcing progress on the way to nowhere.
[Photo of Canadian Armed Forces CF-18 fighter jet (IS2014-7535-02) courtesy of Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND. Map credit: Military Times. All other images obtained by the author.]
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow us at @gawkerphasezero. If you are into the theater of being underground, you can anonymously deliver tips through the Gawker Media SecureDrop. I've got a book on drones coming out in July called Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare. I'm open to your input and your questions, tough questions.