- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Taking a page from its adversaries’ playbook, the U.S. military is looking to outsource more of the fighting in the global war on terror to allied proxy forces and potentially private military contractors.

The Defense Department’s long-awaited National Defense Strategy rolled out last week calls for the Pentagon to increase its reliance on local forces, possibly backed by a significant private contractor force, to tamp down extremists in hot spots such as Syria, Libya and the Philippines.

The plan, which in some ways mirrors Iran’s heavy use of proxy forces to expand its influence and unnerve its foes across the region, could usher in a new era in America’s decades-old counterterrorism mission, former U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials say.

A large portion of the unclassified summary of the National Defense Strategy is dedicated to revamping American military and national security policy to counter the growing military challenge from rising major state powers such as China and Russia. But buried within the document is a more aggressive tactic toward employing partner nations and proxy forces in the fight against terrorist groups that has been a central Pentagon obsession since Sept. 11, 2001.

“Our allies and partners came to our aid after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and have contributed to every major military engagement since,” according to the National Defense Strategy. “We will strengthen and evolve our alliances into an extended network to meet the shared challenges of our time” in the realm of counterterrorism.

The counterterrorism blueprint is “more of a refinement of the Obama-era strategy than an abandonment” of the mission altogether, said Hal Brands, a defense official in the Obama administration and now a senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Despite the deployment of U.S. air power, drones and special operations forces, the Obama administration’s seeming reluctance to employ such measures in the counterterrorism wars was a major sticking point for the current administration, Mr. Brands said.

The “light footprint” approach to counterterrorism that defined the U.S. operations under Mr. Obama is seen by President Trump’s advisers as overly cautious, Mr. Brands said, while the heavier emphasis on state-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere was a path Trump officials were loath to go down.

The new strategy, emphasizing “the aggressive use of military advisers and overwhelming air power” to support proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other hot spots, is an attempt to limit the chances of another long-term military commitment like Afghanistan, Mr. Brands said.

“That is the crucial balance in the [new] strategy,” he said.

David Sedney, a onetime Obama administration aide and now a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the plan represents “a harder footprint” in the counterterrorism fight.

“I see it as keeping continuity [with the Obama administration] in terms of focus on counterterrorism,” Mr. Sedney said. “But what we are going to have is a harder, stronger [strategy] with a focus on striking and defeating” terrorist organizations, rather than engaging in the nation-building quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘Harder footprint’

As part of this harder footprint, American commanders and national security policymakers are looking to reinforce ties with allied militaries and expand a network of “regional coalitions” in areas where groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda are gaining footholds.

“We will develop new partnerships around shared interests” with regional powers, to curb expansion of extremist networks across the globe, according to the strategy. “We have shared responsibilities for resisting authoritarian trends, contesting radical ideologies and serving as bulwarks against instability.”

The Pentagon and State Department will entice potential partners with American weapons and support, the strategy states. The Defense Department, in consultation with State and Capitol Hill, “will prioritize requests for U.S. military equipment sales, accelerating foreign partner modernization and ability to integrate with U.S. forces.”

The Trump administration has already moved toward easing restrictions on American arms sales overseas.

Proxy allied forces will also have the protection of U.S. air power and adviser forces on the ground, according to the National Defense Strategy.

The support strategy was on prominent display in the fight against Islamic State, with Iraqi forces and Syrian Kurdish fighters taking the lead on the ground in ousting the terrorist group from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, with the U.S. providing devastating airstrike support.

Mr. Trump also sent a signal by green-lighting the dropping of the “Mother of all Bombs” on an Islamic State tunnel complex in Afghanistan in June, marking the first time U.S. forces used the massive conventional bomb in combat.

Washington will look for local partners on the ground in targeting extremist enclaves in Africa as well, according to the strategy. “We will bolster existing bilateral and multilateral partnerships and develop new relationships to address significant terrorist threats that threaten U.S. interests,” it said.

Critics worry that the new approach too closely mirrors the Iranian model — and may come with some of the same drawbacks.

Military advisers with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force, which specialized in training and advising Iranian proxy forces, have successfully trained and equipped a collection of proxy forces stretching across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon’s border. The establishment of that “Shiite Crescent” is a testament to Tehran’s deftness at cultivating proxies to expand its influence at a bargain price.

But Mr. Sedney said the Iranian comparison was an attempt “to score cheap political points” against the White House.

“Countries using other countries is not new, and it certainly was not invented by Iran,” he said. “Some people will call them proxies, while others call them partner nations.”

Contracted out

The new Pentagon strategy could also be a boon for private military contracting firms, which could find lucrative business supporting American partner nations.

“Our military runs on contractors,” Mr. Sedney said. “In comparing the numbers between contractors and military troops on the ground now, the [difference] is not that different.”

In the wake of the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq, the numbers of private contractors has only increased.

The number of Defense Department contractors in Iraq rose 37 percent, from 3,592 to 4,927, in the past year, according to U.S. Central Command figures released last week. Contractors involved in base operations and logistics in the Islamic State campaign jumped from just over 1,700 in January 2017 to over 2,300 this month, Military Times has reported.

The White House also has not shied away from using more private military contractors — mercenaries — in U.S.-led operations. Administration officials reportedly entertained the idea of having security contractors conduct the bulk of the military adviser mission in Afghanistan.

Proposed by Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater, the plan would have the 5,000-member contractor army backed by a privately owned air force operated outside the Pentagon’s chain of command. The proposal includes recruiting retired special operations forces soldiers from the United States and allied nations to embed with Afghan army units.

Mr. Trump eventually decided to go with a traditional U.S. military force for his planned escalation, but Mr. Prince is said not to have abandoned his idea.

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