During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump was bitterly critical of the Iraqi and U.S. governments for announcing an offensive against Mosul in advance. In a presidential debate, he said, “Whatever happened to the element of surprise, OK? … Douglas MacArthur, George Patton [are] spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country.”
So now that Trump is president, it stands to reason that the Iraqi government has ceased announcing offensives in advance, right? Actually, on February 19, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the entire world that Iraqi forces, having liberated east Mosul, were about to attack west Mosul. There was not a peep of protest from the White House.
This is a small sign of the fact that, rhetoric and bluster aside, there is a lot more continuity than change in the anti-ISIS campaign. In fact, almost nothing has changed on the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq since Trump became president. U.S. advisers are now allowed closer to the front lines but this was a decision made by President Obama before he left office.
And what of Trump’s promise to come up with a new plan to “crush and destroy” ISIS as a step on the road toward his pledge to “eradicate… Radical Islamic Terrorism… completely from face of the Earth”? Secretary of Defense James Mattis has now submitted a plan with a range of options to accelerate the campaign against ISIS. But judging from this Washington Post report, it will be largely more of the same:
A Pentagon plan for the coming assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria, calls for significant U.S. military participation, including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery, and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground, according to U.S. officials…
Officials involved in the planning have proposed lifting a cap on the size of the U.S. military contingent in Syria, currently numbering about 500 Special Operations trainers and advisers to the combined Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. While the Americans would not be directly involved in ground combat, the proposal would allow them to work closer to the front line and would delegate more decision-making authority down the military line from Washington.
The proposal to lift the cap on the number of U.S. “boots on the ground” is a welcome move. Such hard-and-fast troop caps were, along with the arbitrary deadlines on troop deployments that accompanied them, one of the most noxious tics of the Obama administration when it came to the use of force. Also welcome is the move to delegate more authority downward, reducing the number of decisions that must be made by the president personally. But this is hardly a radical shift. The U.S. role in the coming Raqqa offensive (also announced in advance!) appears to be similar to the one in Mosul, with U.S. troops serving as advisers and providing artillery and air strikes but not leading the offensive themselves.
The most important role for U.S. forces in northern Syria may be to act as a buffer between America’s Kurdish allies–the YPG–and our Turkish allies, who are more determined to fight the Kurds than ISIS. So far there is no sign of any alliance with Russia in Syria of the kind that Trump talked up endlessly during the campaign, no doubt because his military advisers realize that Russia’s goals do not align with America’s. Putin is not fighting ISIS; he is fighting to keep the Iranian-backed Bashar Assad regime in power.
There’s a good reason why Trump is unlikely to radically change the Obama blueprint for battling ISIS. Although Obama took far too long to mobilize against this threat, his team did belatedly implement a strategy that is showing significant signs of success in Mosul and beyond. That relieves Trump of having to make any hard decisions that would thrust U.S. ground troops into another major war. In this case, the hard decisions will come not in defeating ISIS but in dealing with the aftermath.
General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already begun to talk about the need for the U.S. to make a “long-term” commitment to Iraqi security. Indeed, the only way to prevent ISIS or another Sunni terrorist group from rising again in Iraq is for the U.S. to learn the lesson of 2011. When Obama foolishly pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, he created a security vacuum that was filled by both Shiite and Sunni extremists. A continued U.S. military presence in Iraq is not a guarantee of stability. By giving assurances to the Sunni minority that they will not once again have their rights trampled by Iranian-backed Shiite sectarians in Baghdad, though, it does increase the odds.
But such a mission would involve the U.S. in precisely the kind of long-term intervention overseas that Trump denounced during the campaign. “If I become president, the era of nation building will be brought to a very swift and decisive end,” he vowed in August. Before long we will find out which imperative is more important to Trump—to defeat ISIS or to avoid nation-building? If the U.S. shies away from the latter, it won’t be able to achieve the former.