President Obama’s pick to head a critical Pentagon post is sending a clear signal the president wants to ensure his controversial drone-centered counterterrorism strategy stays in place long after he leaves office in January, but that may not stave off pressures on the Pentagon to deploy more troops rather than drones to defeat Islamic State and other jihadi groups.
Armed drones and clandestine ground operations have been the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s strategy to eliminate al Qaeda and now Islamic State. Defense experts say the decision to promote Army Gen. Joseph Votel to the top spot at Central Command is proof that strategy is unlikely to change during the waning months of Obama’s presidency and possibly beyond.
“The administration is convinced its overall approach to counterterrorism is the right one,” Richard Fontaine, president of the D.C.-based Center for a New American Security, said.
For Mr. Obama, unmanned drone strikes and small special-ops teams, not regular combat troops, are “basically the way to fight terrorism, and they had some pretty good success against al Qaeda with it,” Mr. Fontaine said. In Gen. Votel, the administration has picked an officer well equipped to carry on that legacy.
Mr. Obama addressed the subject again on Thursday, defending his counterterrorism approach at a forum at the University of Chicago Law School after first joking that his first choice for fighting terrorists was not drones but the Marvel comics superhero Iron Man.
Turning serious, Mr. Obama went on, “I just mean I wish that the tragedy of war, conflict [and] terrorism did not end up creating circumstances where we, wielding kinetic power, don’t end up hurting anybody who shouldn’t have been hurt,” he said.
“There’s no doubt that some innocent people have been killed by drone strikes,” Mr. Obama said. “It is not true that it is this sort of willy-nilly ‘Let’s bomb a village.’ That is not how folks have operated. The rate of civilian casualties in any drone operation [is] far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur in conventional war.”
After a long stretch with the Army’s vaunted Ranger battalions early in his career, eventually commanding the 75th Ranger Battalion in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Votel assumed command of the highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command in 2011. After a four-year stint with JSOC, he then took the reins of Special Operations Command before confirmed as CENTCOM chief last month.
As a result he has been “ensconced in the counterterrorism and special operations world [for years],” said Rick Nelson, a senior counterterrorism analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Asked how the new commander’s experience would drive his efforts battling Islamic State and other terror groups in the region, Mr. Nelson replied simply: “You are going to go with what you know best.”
Gen. Votel “is going to go with the [counterterrorism] strategy that achieves the objectives” of the White House, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, Mr. Fontaine said. However, the four-star general will also “go by [his] experience with what [he] knows has worked” when providing military advice to the incoming administration, he added.
There has been growing talk on the campaign trail of a potential escalation of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Syria, a move vehemently opposed by the White House. The number of U.S. forces in Iraq is already hovering between 2,500 to 5,000 troops, mostly engaged in counterterrorism operations and training missions.
Gen. Votel said during his confirmation hearing last month he supported plans to restart a U.S.-led effort to train and equip vetted rebel factions in Syria, a move that could potentially put more U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. The previous effort, overseen by former CENTCOM chief Gen. Lloyd Austin, resulted in approximately 180 U.S.-trained rebels at a cost of millions of dollars to the Pentagon.
More recently Pentagon leaders have weighed the possibility of opening a string of new U.S.-manned “firebases” across Iraq to support Baghdad’s efforts to drive Islamic State fighters out of the country.
Roughly 200 Marines are currently stationed at Firebase Bell, about 50 miles southeast of the Islamic State’s Iraqi capitol of Mosul. Those troops have been supporting Iraqi forces with mortars and heavy artillery since Baghdad’s campaign to retake the city began in March.
“As Iraqi security forces progress toward isolating Mosul, there may be a situation in which there is another base,” Rear. Adm. Andrew Lewis, the vice director for operations, said Wednesday. Adm. Lewis raised the prospect that U.S. advisers could reoccupy former American bases in the country, established during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
A successful strategy against Islamic State “includes all of the counterterrorism things [Mr. Obama] is fond of, but it is also more than that,” including the potential increased use of conventional forces, Mr. Fontaine said.
The clandestine, drone-centric strategy in place to battle Islamic State “bumps against the reality of what [Islamic State] actually is,” he added, noting that the same rules to tamp down al Qaeda simply do not apply against Islamic State. “It’s not just a terrorist group, it’s a movement.”
Gen. Votel faces a steep learning curve in his new expanded command, where statecraft skills are just as important as battlefield savvy, according to defense experts.
“He is a door-kicker and he comes at [the mission] from a different direction,” a congressional source with knowledge of current U.S. counterterrorism operations said of Gen. Votel. The four-star general “was a pretty good fit for what SOCOM was going for,” but the political and regional complexities of the Mideast will require a defter approach, the source said.
The Obama White House has repeatedly come under fire for what critics say is its secretive and heavy-handed reliance on drone operations as part of its overall counterterrorism strategy.
Human rights and civil liberties groups have lambasted the White House for the scores of civilians injured or killed during such strikes. Critics have also accused the White House of alienating potential allies in the region by conducting unilateral strikes within the borders of sovereign countries.
Being able to revitalize and cultivate those regional partnerships, and dealing with the blowback from the drone and kill/capture program, will fall on Gen. Votel’s shoulders as the new face of U.S. military policy in the Mideast.
CENTCOM commanders “have this diplomatic role which you don’t deal with when you are operating in the black,” Mieke Eoyang, head of the national security program at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Third Way, told Defense News last month.
“That’s going to be very different than what he’s done before,” she added.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.