February 18, 2020

Where are the forward observers?

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 9 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Where are the forward observers?

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Months of sustained air attacks in Iraq and Syria have destroyed trucks and artillery pieces as well as oil and other installations, but so far have failed to sufficiently degrade the self-declared Islamic state’s fighting capabilities. ISIS is pushing on toward Baghdad and is on the verge of taking Kobane, a Syrian town on the Turkish border. On Wednesday, President Obama met with his top generals and military advisors at the Pentagon in what appeared to be an effort to beef up the U.S. response and get everyone on the same page.

Media reports conveyed the military’s frustration that the targets have not been worthy of U.S. air power, and that knocking out a few trucks with air attacks is not a good strategy. ISIS can always buy more trucks; they have got plenty of money. If the U.S. and its allies are serious, the bombs should be hitting ISIS forces.

The problem is that ISIS doesn’t travel in convoys. They’re too smart for that. They know that would attract attention, and an attack. But they do have to come together when they’re massing for an attack as they take territory.

And someone has to be on the ground to spot those movements. In the military, the people who do that work are called forward observers.  It means what it says: go forward, go out to the battle line, observe with field glasses, spot the targets and call in the strikes. Amazingly, these critical players apparently have not been there during this air campaign in keeping with Obama’s promise not to put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria.

The Pentagon has sent advisors, and military experts assumed those advisors would be on the front lines with Iraqi troops or the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters. The American military is equipped to do that, they’ve got the maps, the coding, the trained eye and the necessary technology to identify targets. Without these forward observers on the ground, the military is flying blind. When Obama met with his generals, they undoubtedly made this point. To have an effective aerial bombardment, they need a target-rich environment.

Right now, they’re likely relying on satellite technology, which is not as effective as trained U.S. line-of-sight personnel. Some might say this violates Obama’s pledge, but boots on the ground need to be better defined. Regular combat units qualify for sure, but advisors broadly defined are not the same thing.

Given our history with Vietnam, where a small number of advisors eventually led to a  commitment of hundreds  of thousands of troops, it’s understandable that Obama’s promise not to commit ground troops in the current conflict would lead to skepticism. But it’s crazy to ask the military to conduct an operation where it is denied access to critical information. At some point, lobbing bombs at great expense is not a productive strategy, and Obama will get more pushback from his generals.

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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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