The outlines of the probable counterterrorism strategy under U.S. President Donald Trump have emerged. And judging from what is known, though a more intense campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups could lie ahead, the core of Washington's strategy — relying on local forces to do the brunt of the fighting — will likely remain unchanged.
On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis briefed White House strategists on his 30-day strategic review of the fight against terrorism. Based on Pentagon statements and leaked information, the options he outlined represent more an intensification of current efforts rather than a seismic shift in strategy. The United States may look to increase its military presence in a number of areas, particularly in Syria, Yemen and Somalia, but the commitment of U.S. forces to any of those theaters is expected to remain limited.
The options presented in the review, the Department of Defense has emphasized, are more a framework for broader discussion rather than a ready-to-execute military plan. And since the details of the review are classified as secret, there is much that the public does not know about what Mattis laid out.
In the decades-old fight against extremism, the United States has exhausted its easiest options. In that regard, part of Mattis' job is to set realistic expectations about what can be done to fight groups like the Islamic State, including outlining the costs and limits of available strategies. For instance, in Syria, where the United States does not want to cooperate with a hostile government, it could send in more troops to battle the Islamic State forces entrenched there, reportedly a key option presented in his review. But even though that would increase the odds of short-term victories, such as ousting the Islamic State from its stronghold of Raqqa, it also would put U.S. troops in harm's way on the front lines. Plus, in the long run, the more the United States becomes directly involved in Syria, the more difficult it would be to extract itself from the quagmire of the country's chaotic civil war. Another U.S. option in Syria would be to arm the Kurdish People's Protection Units for the final push against the Islamic State-held city. But that would have considerable repercussions, including damaging U.S. relations with Turkey, which is trying to limit Kurdish advances in the country.
The options are less complicated in Iraq, where the United States is expected to maintain or reinforce its partnership with the Iraqi government in its fight against the Islamic State, particularly in the crucial battle for Mosul. In all cases, the central U.S. goal remains to select the local or regional partners that are best suited to battle the terrorist groups in their countries. In Iraq and Syria as well as other countries around the globe, the U.S. military has already made it clear that it intends to reinforce local partners with training, equipment and support rather than having U.S. troops do the bulk of the fighting against extremists.
Other counterterrorism options under consideration go beyond direct military action. Officials familiar with the review have reportedly highlighted an increased emphasis on diplomatic elements of the campaign, including efforts both to counter messaging and recruitment efforts by violent extremists and to cut off their funding. To accomplish that, the United States would also rely on regional and local partners to curtail financial flows to terrorist organizations from within their own countries or identify the factions best suited to counter extremist rhetoric. As a Pentagon spokesman noted when discussing the review, diplomacy will be a key part of any plan.
In discussing the campaign against terrorism, one important aspect of Mattis' job is to emphasize the enduring nature of the fight.
Though the Pentagon has acknowledged that the counterterrorism review is focused on presenting options to rapidly defeat the Islamic State, it has avoided using the more forceful language coming from the White House — words such as "obliterate" and "eradicate." Instead, the Department of Defense will tailor the review to highlight the view that, realistically, the military cannot expect to wipe out every member of every extremist group. Rather, it sets the expectation that the threat from terrorist attacks can be reduced to a level that law enforcement could manage. It is one thing to seize territory occupied by an insurgent force, but it is another entirely to eliminate its ability to carry out terrorist attacks.
But even the more measured objective of comprehensively degrading a violent extremist organization is far from simple. The U.S. military acknowledges that to maintain pressure on violent extremists, it must not only create enduring partnerships with local and regional forces but also consider a long-term U.S. presence in trouble spots. In that vein, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the United States is evaluating the possibility of basing troops in Iraq long after the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State. That raises the possibility that a longer-term U.S. presence alongside local partners in Syria may also be required.
No matter what strategy the Trump administration decides to follow, it is clear that the fight to eliminate the threat of global terrorism will be neither simple nor quick. A major shift from the strategies pursued under President Barack Obama is likely not in the cards, as the former administration already was intently seeking ways to advance the anti-terrorism fight and left few good options unexplored.