In January, President Donald Trump ordered his secretary of defense to come up with a draft plan within 30 days to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. As far as anyone outside of the White House can tell, the plan has yet to materialize.
Trump isn’t exactly groping for an ISIS strategy, though. The billionaire’s colorful rhetorical flourishes aside, Trump has largely stuck to his predecessor’s script. In fact, there may be no official strategy under the new president. Instead, efforts that started under President Obama to dislodge the terrorist group from its sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria are continuing.
While Trump has gone about trying to dismantle many of Obama’s policies, particularly his environmental and health care initiatives, he has chosen continuity when it comes to the Islamic State.
All presidents want to put their personal stamp on the office, but Trump is maintaining the “by, with and through” strategy of the Obama administration that entails working with local partners in ISIS combat areas.
Obama did not want a big U.S. footprint when he started going after the terrorist group, particularly in Syria. He was not interested in nation-building, and neither is Trump, which his “America first” approach has made abundantly clear.
The fact that Brett McGurk, who started working on counterterrorism issues under George W. Bush and served under Obama, is still around and now serving under Trump as the special envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS is the major signal that Trump has willingly, whether or not begrudgingly, inherited the Obama strategy.
Now that he’s survived the purge of Obama appointees at the State Department and works for Trump, McGurk gets questions as to how Trump’s ISIS approach is different from Obama’s. McGurk declined to comment for this article, but he articulated the differences during an event at the Middle East Institute (MEI) July 27.
He said there are four key changes that have been made under Trump. One is that Trump delegated tactical authority “to the lowest possible level” in the military. Defense Secretary James Mattis has stressed, however, that delegating authority to the lower levels will not alter the rules of engagement with regard to preventing civilian casualties.
Second, the Trump administration has adopted a “surround, restrict, annihilate strategy,” said McGurk. The goal is to trap foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria and prevent them from returning home or migrating elsewhere to cause mayhem.
Third, the administration has “really intensified outreach to the coalition and burden sharing.” According to McGurk, for every dollar the U.S. is spending on stabilization and humanitarian programs, there is about $3 from the 68-member coalition, and the administration seeks to grow that ratio in the coming months.
Fourth, McGurk said work to sever the connections between the ISIS core in Iraq and Syria and its affiliates around the world is underway. He said that the coalition has shut down “critical financial nodes.”
McGurk emphasized that the clearing-and-holding strategy against ISIS is successful. “They haven’t taken back a single speck of territory that we’ve taken,” he said. “This is very much a policy that is on track.”
At a press conference in August, McGurk said stabilization is a key component to the ISIS strategy, meaning that once the group is cleared from an area, work is done with the locals to create an environment that enables people — specifically, displaced Sunni Arabs — to return to their homes. Stabilization entails demining, rubble removal, basic electricity, sewage and water. What it does not entail is having the coalition run, for instance, hospitals or schools when an area is cleared, McGurk pointed out. “We’ve learned some lessons and we’re not very good at that, and also that is not our responsibility,” he said. “We will do basic stabilization.”
Now that McGurk works for Trump, he’s naturally under pressure to attribute gains to the new boss, but the efforts in the counter-ISIS campaign can be traced back to Obama, particularly because McGurk helped birth them. The Obama administration also had stabilization led by local actors in mind, as opposed to nation-building from afar.
Since 2014, when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate, the group has lost more than 60 percent of its territory and 80 percent of its revenue, according to an analysis released June 29 by IHS Markit.
“The Islamic State’s remaining caliphate is likely to break up before the end of the year, reducing its governance project to a string of isolated urban areas that will eventually be retaken over the course of 2018,” predicted Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit
At the MEI event in July, McGurk laid out the progress of U.S. counterterrorist military activities since Bush. During the troop surge in Iraq in 2007, when McGurk was working in the White House with Bush on the project, the cost was 160,000 troops at an expense of $304 million a day and about $111 billion a year, as well as the lives of 904 Americans fighting in Iraq, McGurk said.
Today, more territory has been cleared at the cost of $11 million to $13 million a day and about $3 billion a year, with dramatically less deaths on the battlefield, partly due to the air campaign strategy.
Working with local partners, the U.S. has cleared 70,000 square kilometers that used to be controlled by ISIS, which includes 5 million people no longer living under the group’s control, said McGurk.
The battle for Mosul is now complete, with coalition forces successfully recapturing the Iraqi city. Now, the battle over Raqqa is advancing in the coalition’s favor. About 45 percent of Raqqa has been cleared, McGurk said in August.
Beyond Raqqa, there are concerns over ISIS territory in the Euphrates Valley, including the stronghold of Tal Afar in Iraq, which is now under siege by coalition forces. Defense Secretary Mattis recently referred to the Middle Euphrates River Valley between Iraq and Syria as the group’s “last stand.”
Idlib Province in Syria on the border with Turkey is another major concern because it is a safe haven for al-Qaeda. It is a “huge problem,” said McGurk. The U.S. will be in close discussions with Turkey on this issue, and the border might have to be sealed, he added.
There’s also a small, persistent ISIS affiliate in the southwest on the border of the Golan. This pocket is progressively becoming isolated from the ISIS core in Raqqa, and the U.S. will be increasingly focused on that problem.
Weaknesses in Strategy
The U.S. has been taking successful military action against ISIS, but the use of force comes with questions about the aftermath.
Obama and Trump’s ISIS strategies both rely on local actors to help clear ISIS from areas and make sure it stays out. This opens up the vulnerability of depending on non-state actors, who are “more dependent in the long term on U.S. and American-ally military and financial assistance to provide them with the power and authority that is needed to govern the areas captured from ISIS,” wrote Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security working in the Middle East Security Program, in an email to The Diplomat.
“If the local partners are not sufficiently supported well into the post-ISIS period, these local partners will have great trouble stabilizing territory taken from ISIS, which would then require even greater U.S. investment. It is a strategy that, if it works well, it limits the exposure of the U.S. military in volatile areas of the greater Middle East, but if it does not work well, it could doom the U.S. to repeat a strategy of on-again, off-again military operations and a more involved stabilization mission that is costlier and more troop-intensive than a short, sharp U.S. military ground operation with tens of thousands of U.S. troops would have been,” he wrote.
Indeed, relying on local actors is fraught with pitfalls, especially in two countries riven by longstanding sectarian grievances. In Iraq, the Shiite-majority government will have to win back the trust of alienated Sunnis, many of whom preferred the Islamic State’s harsh rule over the chaotic, corrupt state of affairs in Baghdad, at least initially. Many Sunnis also still fear bloody reprisals by Shiite militias.
Likewise, in Syria, the U.S. has largely relied on arming and training the Y.P.G., a group of battle-hardened Kurdish militia fighters, to rout the Islamic State. But Syrian Arabs and NATO ally Turkey adamantly oppose the prospect of Kurds occupying any liberated Arab territory, setting up potential clashes if the Kurds refuse to leave.
The Kurds are just one of many actors jockeying for influence in Syria, which has morphed into a proxy war. As the Islamic State loses ground there, a dizzying constellation of powers — including the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran on one side, and rebels (mixed with al-Qaeda extremists) backed by the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations on the other — are fighting to stake out territory ahead of any possible settlement.
For the U.S., tackling the Islamic State in Syria inevitably requires working with Russia, even though relations have been strained since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Moscow — and despite the fact the two countries have differing visions of what a resolution to Syria’s civil war would look like. Russia continues to prop up its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, who has solidified control over critical parts of the country thanks to Russian aerial bombings and Iranian Hezbollah fighters. Even though the White House has pulled back some of its support for U.S.-trained rebels and softened demands that Assad transfer power, it remains fundamentally opposed to the Syrian regime, with Trump even going so far as to strike against Assad’s forces.
The looming question for the U.S. is: What is the endgame in Syria? Members of Congress are starting to ask this question, as the push to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which gave the president sweeping counterterrorism powers in the wake of 9/11, gains traction (also see story on page XX).
“Even as the priority may rightly be put on reducing the threat of ISIS, one needs an endgame, one needs a sense of how, if ISIS is beaten back, there’s enough in place to prevent it from flaring up again,” Joshua Geltzer, a fellow at New America’s International Security Program who served from 2015 to 2017 as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff, told The Diplomat. “It’s not clear that this administration has a plan and knows how it wants to interact with actors who have different visions for Syria. Al-Qaeda in Syria is a real and growing problem. That group has done a worrisome job of integrating into the local population. How is the administration thinking about dealing with that terrorist threat?”
Any endgame in Syria and Iraq will have to involve a comprehensive strategy that addresses these countries’ deep-seated ethnic divisions and the structural governing failures behind them. It would also involve a massive reconstruction campaign to rebuild cities that have been reduced to rubble and try to reabsorb millions of refugees — a monumental undertaking for any nation.
But critics say the current approach taken by both Obama and Trump, which focuses exclusively on defeating the Islamic State, is divorced from the underlying factors that gave rise to the group in the first place, namely the lack of inclusive governance in Iraq and the political vacuum in Syria left by six years of civil war.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Trump has emphasized hard power over soft power, moving to severely cut the State Department’s budget at a time when even the Pentagon’s top brass says diplomacy will be critical once victory on the battlefield is achieved.
The U.S. must be involved politically in the countries where it fights ISIS, said Bilal Y. Saab, director of the Defense and Security Program at MEI. “You have to establish real partnerships with the host countries, whether in Iraq or other places — start pushing them to establish greater representation in politics and inclusion to stem the tide of terrorism. These are necessities. [The governments must] be inclusive, accountable, legitimate. We need to keep pressuring and pushing our partners. We have the leverage, but we won’t use it.”
Saab explained that political pressure and partnership are not nation-building, which both Obama and Trump want to avoid. “It’s just about adding a political dimension to the military strategy.”
This political element could be part of the stabilization strategy to foster the conditions in society that would diminish the appeal of joining terrorist groups. But it won’t be easy.
Decapitating ISIS’s ranks and depriving the group of its self-proclaimed caliphate may not extinguish its appeal and endurance.
Experts say the group will invariably evolve to adopt guerilla insurgency tactics, as fighters who are pushed out from one corner slip into another. Already, U.S. policymakers worry that the Islamic State is gaining a foothold in Afghanistan and establishing a presence in Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines, although it remains unclear if Trump’s strategy extends beyond Iraq and Syria.
The group has also proven to be surprisingly resilient. Despite losing over 60,000 of its fighters since 2014 according to U.S. estimates, ISIS retains an extensive network of operatives and supporters. Moreover, any aggressive U.S.-led military campaign in places such as Raqqa increases the risk of civilian casualties, which in turn could increase local resentment and feed the Islamic State narrative.
And despite its significant battleground losses, the group has shown it can still launch spectacular attacks with few resources. As such, the threat of lone-wolf terrorism is likely to grow as ISIS territory shrinks, as evidenced by a spate of high-profile attacks over the last year in France, Belgium, Britain, Germany and, most recently, Spain that were inspired by the group.
The Islamic State will also fight to maintain its appeal in the digital realm, where it pioneered online terrorist recruitment and radicalization.
This propaganda war is another vulnerability of the Trump strategy, Geltzer said. For years, the counter-messaging team in the State Department has struggled to blunt the Islamic State’s social media presence or disrupt its recruitment efforts. The audience that this messaging is trying to reach is perhaps not interested in hearing anything the U.S. has to say.
Even if the U.S. succeeds in containing the physical space that ISIS occupies, perhaps even to the point where the group no longer seeks to claim territory, the threat of terrorist networks and their ideology will remain. Al-Qaeda in Iraq begat ISIS, which itself could produce another offshoot terrorist group.
The goal of the U.S. is to rob terrorists of physical sanctuaries, but McGurk is under no illusion that total victory over terrorism is possible. He acknowledges that terrorists will remain a cellular network and “will try to pop up in other parts of the world,” which is why the global aspect of the coalition is important. “We cannot let the pressure off,” he said, and this vigilance must be long term, “really over the next 10 years. This is something that we will be engaged in for a very long time, but we have to do it in a sustainable way.”
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.