- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
BRUSSELS — President-elect Donald Trump claimed on the campaign trail to know more about fighting terrorism than U.S. generals do, but the Pentagon is prepared to lay out the options it sees as available to fight the Islamic State, the nation’s top general said Wednesday.
But Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military still believes Russia is “the most capable state actor that could challenge us,” and said he has briefed top Trump officials on the classified National Military Strategy, which outlines the Pentagon’s assessment of the biggest threats facing the nation.
For months, Trump has promised quick action to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria once he takes office, and has suggested he would be willing to work with Moscow to take the group’s last major urban stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.
“My job is to share options so the next leadership team can choose and identify the risks and opportunities” in each, “including opportunities to accelerate the campaign,” Dunford told a small gathering of reporters, noting that the President-elect has said he wants to speed up the war effort.
Dunford said he’s looking to have a broader discussion of war aims however, and won’t “narrow down” or limit his recommendations to more tactical concerns like troop numbers and loosening authorities for bombing targets.
“What is really important is first that we have a conversation about what we are doing today, why we are doing it, and what other things might be done and why we haven’t done it to date,” he said.
But few details of the Joint Chiefs’ options are available, and it’s unclear what new powers or increase in American commitment would actually speed up the fight short of a commitment to using huge numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.
There are already approximately 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and as many as 500 more U.S. special operations forces in Syria, embedded with Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters pressing on Raqqa. Trump has also called the fight against ISIS a “disaster” and has not acknowledged that the group has lost as much of 50 percent of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq in 2015 has been retaken.
There have already been several high-level sessions between top Pentagon officials and members of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, including Dunford’s visit to New York last week to meet Trump and his national security advisors. Though there are multiple reports of infighting amid different groups within the incoming Trump administration over who will get jobs in the Pentagon, Dunford said his interactions have been “pretty encouraging.”
The role that Russia will play in U.S. plans in Syria remains a burning question, particularly after Moscow invited the incoming Trump administration to send representatives to upcoming ceasefire talks between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Spokespeople for the President-elect have yet to give an answer as to whether anyone will attend the meetings.
And despite Trump’s questioning of NATO’s ability to fight terrorism and recent charges that it is “obsolete,” Dunford sees a role for the alliance in providing assistance to Iraq after government forces retake Mosul from ISIS. NATO has “embraced the idea that violent extremism is transregional,” he said, and just this month the first team from the alliance landed in Baghdad to begin working with the Iraqis to train the country’s security forces.
“NATO can do more in dealing with the challenge of violent extremism,” Dunford added, but said the alliance sees the threat “very similar to how we see it,” and there are strides being made in building a wider intelligence network to locate and track extremists outside of Europe.
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