By Daniel DePetris
Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered a preliminary set of options to accelerate the defeat of the Islamic State, a mission President Donald Trump consistently and vocally labeled as his top foreign policy priority.
The preliminary plan is the result of an exhaustive, inter-agency process, and the Trump administration has classified its contents. But there are some general themes slowly emerging, the most talked-about being that the deployment of additional U.S. forces into Syria for the bulk of fighting duties currently being carried out by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to eliminate ISIS’s presence in Raqqa. Unfortunately, we know little about the key question which would determine the long-term success or failure of such an effort: What happens the day-after?
If public reports of the Pentagon’s review are accurate, the Trump administration has concluded that working with and through local forces will continue to form the core of the war strategy. Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it astutely during an event at the Brookings Institution last week when he argued it would be foolhardy for Washington to lose sight of the bigger picture in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State will not be defeated unless and until local powerbrokers in both of those countries arrive at a sustainable political arrangement where power-sharing across ethnic and sectarian lines is the norm rather than the exception.
From what is currently in the public domain, there is very little—if any—acknowledgment that only regional governments and politicians can solve their own problems.
The National Security Council will be debating amongst itself what options should be considered. But an option that should stay far away from the list of possibilities is a reincarnation of the strategy that Washington has embraced during the 16-year (and counting) military engagement in Afghanistan. This strategy involves thousands of conventional ground forces tasked with an expansive mandate that could only be realistically met by a seemingly endless, billon-dollar spending spree and permanent U.S. investment in that country’s political system and economy. This hasn’t worked well in Afghanistan—just take a look at the latest report from the Special Inspector General—so we shouldn’t expect a full-fledged, U.S.-led counterinsurgency strategy to be any different in Iraq and Syria.
A permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq will no doubt appeal to many inside the Beltway, but as in Afghanistan, there is no amount of time, money, or arms the U.S. can pay for that will fix what ills this and other countries.
As my colleague Daniel Davis observed after a trip last year to the frontlines, even the United States—with the greatest military every known to man—doesn’t have the power to reconcile the cleavages in Iraq and Syria that have torn both nations apart over the last decade. Only Iraqis and Syrians themselves can heal those divides—and to date, they have been unwilling or politically unable to come together to create that new order. The game of whack-a-mole that the U.S. has played with the alphabet soup of terrorist groups for well over a decade and a half can’t successfully end terrorism.
Without political reform and reconciliation crafted by the very people who live in the region, air strikes and covert operations are only holding patterns.
One final point: although the Islamic State is most virulent in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration has indicated that the strategy against the group will extend far beyond the borders of those two countries. Indeed, as the National Security Council considers the counter-ISIS plan presented by the Pentagon, what they’re really reviewing seems more like a worldwide, counterterrorism operation, where jihadist groups like ISIS will be located and destroyed.
Somalia, a backwater country in the Horn of Africa that hasn’t had a stable political order in a quarter-century, is now increasingly viewed as a fourth front in the war on terrorism—one that military officials believe may require more U.S. special operations forces closer to the action operating under looser rules of engagement for U.S. pilots.
There is no question that Somalia is full of unsavory characters, and the al-Shabaab terrorist group takes the cake for depravity. But in crafting its counterterrorism goals, the U.S. needs to be as smart as it is tough, and in many instances that means that Washington needs to think twice before plunging head first into yet another anarchic or unstable country that has a powerless federal government and a corrupt army incapable of directly threatening our homeland.
The U.S. must not bite off more than we can chew. If the priority is the Islamic State, the Trump administration should work with its partners in the Middle East to focus predominately on the Islamic State—not on other terrorist organizations that are either divided amongst itself or concerned with ambitions that are more local than transnational.
That cooperation, though, cannot be military-centric. There are a whole series of lessons that the 16 years have taught, but two should be inescapable.
First, bombing and capturing terrorist leaders like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama bin-Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is insufficient if the politics of the region continue to hemorrhage terrorist replacements. And the second is that local forces who are willing and able to take on the fight, as the Iraqi counterterrorism forces are doing in Mosul and as the Syrian Democratic Forces are doing in Raqqa, is ultimately the most effective way to get the job done.
We are in the very beginning phases of the Trump administration’s counter-ISIS strategy review. Throughout it all, President Trump must keep one thing in mind: While the U.S. today provides intelligence, weapons, and air cover to our friends doing the fighting in the field, there are limits to American power. We can set a noble example, but we cannot force our values on other countries by military force—political reconciliation must come from within.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on March 13, 2017. Read more HERE.