Remember presidential candidate Donald Trump’s secret plan to defeat the Islamic State? And his boast that he knew more than the generals did about the Islamic State (thus implying he’d replace them once in office)? More campaign rhetoric crashing on the rocks of reality: The Trump administration just endorsed the core elements of former President Barack Obama’s counter-Islamic State plan, and Trump has decided that Obama’s generals weren’t so bad, either.
On May 19, a day when Washington was consumed with the latest developments in the scandals enveloping the White House, the Pentagon announced that the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, respectively — would be renominated for another term. The commanders leading the military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, and Syria — all places with significant Islamic State presences — also remain in place.
That same day, Dunford and Secretary of Defense James Mattis updated the Pentagon press corps on the counter-Islamic State campaign, which Trump has ordered them to accelerate. They gave few details of the plan presented to the president. But what they did say was revealing. They highlighted only two significant changes: delegation of more authority to field commanders, and a tactical shift from shoving the Islamic State out of safe locations to surrounding it in its strongholds. Notably, Mattis emphasized that the rules of engagement had not changed, and that U.S. forces would maintain “continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties.” So much for the Trump campaign pledge to “bomb the hell out of ISIS.” Apparently shelved, too, is National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s reported interest in significantly expanding the U.S. troop presence in Syria.
These are tactical shifts, not a fundamental change of strategy. The Obama approach of working by, with, and through partners in Iraq and Syria continues, as does the campaign of U.S. and coalition air strikes and targeted raids, along with arming, training, and advising local partners, using a relatively small number of U.S. troops on the ground. The core objectives remain: seizing the two remaining centers of the so-called caliphate — Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria — and countering the Islamic State elements in southern Syria and the Euphrates valley. To his credit, the president also recently approved the arming of the Syrian Kurds — part of a larger force that will take Raqqa — in the face of strong opposition from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
As Obama concluded, and as the Trump team apparently concedes, the current approach is the most sustainable. Significant increases in U.S. troop presence in Iraq would undoubtedly add to the danger to our troops, as it would invite greater mischief by Iran and its Shia militia proxies in Iraq, and take away from the government in Baghdad the burden of owning the challenge of defeating the Islamic State and building an inclusive government after its fall. It would also impose higher costs for the United States. The operation against the Islamic State has cost less than $15 billion since August 2014, and 11 American lives have been lost due to hostile action (compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost in Iraq a decade ago).
Obama believed in the maxim that war is too important to be left to the generals, and thus kept a tight rein on their actions in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Close White House review may have sometimes had opportunity costs, but it also ensured that the commander-in-chief was prepared to bear the responsibility for mistakes, a trait that Trump has not yet shown, as we saw after he blamed the generals for mistakes made in a counterterrorism raid in Yemen early in his tenure.
Importantly, Trump’s decision to delegate does not mean a change in targeting practices. The United States and its partners could win the battles for Mosul and Raqqa more quickly by less discriminate bombing — tactics employed by Russia and the Syrian regime in Aleppo — but that would be inconsistent with the laws of armed conflict and our values, and would hand the Islamic State a propaganda and recruiting tool. (Recent increases in civilian casualties in Mosul are more likely due to the complexity of the urban battlefield, not a change in tactics.)
From the start, the generals never said the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would be easy or quick. But it has yielded results, with steady gains of territory once controlled by the Islamic State. Let’s hope the president has the patience to stick with the plan he has now embraced.
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