US military drafting 'new narrative' for ISIS war

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The U.S. military is seeking to craft a “new narrative” for the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in part to push back on the growing perception that President Obama does not have a strategy.

Military officials on the Operation Inherent Resolve task force have recently formed a working group to formulate the narrative, defense officials told The Hill. Separately, the Joint Staff has drafted its own messaging document. 

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The steps are preliminary and are part of a larger effort to better communicate the United States's military strategy amid heavy criticism from Republican presidential candidates who say Obama is losing the battle against the terrorist group.

"To say there's no strategy is just flat out wrong," said Army Col. Christopher Garver, public affairs officer for the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve.

"If you want to have a debate about it, that's good, let's talk about it. But there is a strategy," he added.

The new working group will look at "how best to articulate what it is we're trying to do ... and do it in a concise, easy to understand way," Garver said. 

It is not clear who is overseeing or directing the effort, which appears to be internally driven within the military.

Still, the focus on messaging is in sync with the White House, which has said it needs to do a better job communicating the ISIS strategy to the public. 

"In recent months and weeks we've been encouraging principals across the [U.S. government] to get out more to talk about their aspects of the counter-ISIL campaign and to new audiences," a senior administration official told The Hill on Thursday, using the administration's preferred acronym for the terrorist group.  

Obama earlier this week in an interview with NPR suggested that the administration has not done enough to publicize progress in the ISIS war.

"There is a legitimate criticism of what I've been doing and our administration has been doing in the sense that we haven't, you know, on a regular basis I think described all the work that we've been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL," he said. 

"And so part of our goal here is to make sure that people are informed about all the actions that we're taking," he added.   

The White House has undertaken a flurry of activity over the past month to highlight the military campaign against ISIS: 

• On Nov. 30, the White House announced the president had tapped a new ISIS czar, Robert Malley. He held a Twitter chat two weeks later, answering questions from the general public and journalists. 

• On Dec. 6, the president addressed the nation on ISIS from the Oval Office, reiterating and defending his strategy.

• On Dec. 8, the National Security Council press team began emailing to journalists daily summaries of "key developments ... in our unyielding campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL." 

• On Dec. 14, the president himself visited the Pentagon to convene a National Security Council meeting on ISIS. While he issued remarks afterwards, he did not take any questions from journalists.

• On Dec. 15, a senior State Department official briefed Pentagon reporters on efforts to target ISIS's oil assets. 

• And on Dec. 16, Adam Szubin, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, briefed White House reporters on efforts to shut down ISIS's financing. 

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Monday rejected the idea that weak messaging is to blame for rising public fears about terrorism. 

"This isn’t the first time the president has stressed that the American people just don’t get it, blaming poor communication for America’s discontent rather than the failed policies themselves," said a statement from Ryan’s office. 

The issue was not with "a communications plan" to defeat ISIS but rather over the need for a "comprehensive plan to destroy this enemy and protect our homeland," it said.

But the administration clearly disagrees. 

Garver said Operation Inherent Resolve's "narrative working group" was created several weeks ago but also in part to update the military’s messaging for the rapidly changing war.

"We're going through a campaign plan assessment to figure out where we are," he said.

For example, he said, there previously had been messaging created for the U.S. program to train moderate Syrian rebels. That program is now defunct, having failed to attract enough recruits to be viable.

The task force's near-term plan is to get the new narrative done within the next several weeks to present to Army Gen. Sean McFarland, the U.S. commander overseeing the war agianst ISIS.

The messaging effort comes as the U.S.-led coalition is seeing some success in Iraq. Iraqi forces retook the Beiji oil refinery from ISIS in October, Kurdish peshmerga forces retook Sinjar from ISIS in November and Iraqi forces are on the brink of retaking Ramadi. 

Those successes have been muted, however, by ISIS-orchestrated terrorist attack in Paris in November and a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, where one of the attackers had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

A recent poll shows that a majority of Americans want to do more in the fight against ISIS. Fifty-two percent would send U.S. ground troops to Iraq and Syria, according to a Quinnipac poll published on Dec. 23. 

Amb. James Jeffrey, a former Army infantry officer and Vietnam War veteran who served as ambassador to Iraq under Obama, said the push for better messaging reflects a "correct assumption" that the president is "losing the American people on this thing and that his strategy is not working."

Jeffrey, the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added, "If you're not willing to change policy ... or you're not willing to change your goals, then what you do is you reorganize the deck chairs on the Titanic."