At long last, Donald Trump has a plan to fight the Islamic State. Well, sort of. According to the document’s text and those briefed on it, the plan is long on overblown rhetoric and short on a substantive strategy to destroy the jihadist group.
Unclassified portions of this strategy document—it remains classified—were read to The Daily Beast on Tuesday. The strategy is so reminiscent of Barack Obama’s approach, as the Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier has reported, that it replicates Obama’s failures as well as its strengths—primarily its treatment of the Syrian civil war as an unrelated geopolitical development, rather than a key driver of jihadist violence.
The major departure from Obama’s approach to ISIS is linguistic. The strategy, which Trump ordered up on January 28 and the Pentagon sent to Capitol Hill on June 26, claims to describe a “comprehensive international campaign to crush ISIS’ claim of invincibility.” It seeks to “deny ISIS a geographic haven from which to hatch murder” and to “eliminate ISIS’ ability to operate externally and to eradicate its ability to recruit and finance terrorist operations.”
But the strategy retains the framework of operating through local allies that the Obama administration adopted to avoid another open-ended ground war in the Middle East.
Similarly, the objectives outlined in the document are more modest than the up-front rhetoric about “eliminating” and “eradicating” ISIS capabilities suggests—let alone Trump’s pledge in his first congressional address in February to “demolish and destroy ISIS.” Or Trump’s campaign promise to “utterly destroy ISIS.” Or his 6-month-old executive order for the Pentagon to plan—in 30 days—the “defeat” of ISIS.
In addition to protecting the U.S. “homeland” and Americans from ISIS attacks, the listed goals are to “defeat ISIS’ core in Iraq and Syria”—an echo of Obama’s 2009 counterterrorism focus on al-Qaeda’s “core” in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region—to “degrade its branches globally”; to “disrupt its networks”; and to “neutralize its narrative.”
The strategy itself is primarily concerned with ISIS’ presence in Syria, to the point of treating ISIS affiliates in places like Libya, Afghanistan, and beyond as afterthoughts. That’s despite U.S. forces fighting the terror group on these far-flung battlefields. Those troops aided in the recapture of Sirte from ISIS last year and are now attacking ISIS in Afghanistan directly. Last week, U.S. troops killed the emir of ISIS in Afghanistan, Abu Sayed, in Kunar province.
But while the focus remains on ISIS in Syria, those familiar with the strategy fault it for replicating a different mistake of the Obama administration: there’s no connection between the ISIS fight and the Syrian civil war, which the Government Accountability Office called an “incubator for violent extremists” in a new report on efforts to thwart ISIS.
“I don’t see any significant departure from the Obama administration strategy, including the failings thereof to address the broader conditions in Syria that enabled ISIS’ rise and would enable a similar rise in the future,” said a knowledgeable congressional staffer.
Without specificity, the document envisions the U.S. “working with local governance institutions and independent civil society organizations” in post-ISIS Syria. In advance of Trump’s first meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G-20 earlier this month, the Trump administration acquiesced in the short term to leaving Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power while it signs onto Russian-led plans for ceasefires in regions of the country where, at present, U.S. forces do not operate. Thus far, the Trump administration does not envision turning territory it and its allies take from ISIS back to the Assad regime.
“I remain concerned about the administration’s lack of a specific post-conflict plan in Iraq and a clear way forward in Syria beyond simply defeating ISIS,” Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat on the armed services committee and a Marine veteran of Iraq, told the Daily Beast. “Syria’s brutal civil war has endured for over six years, killed over 400,000, and rendered millions homeless. With over 500 American servicemembers active in Syria, we need a clear strategy that defines our end goals and how we will achieve them.”
“Using civil society—I don’t even know what that means in the context of Syria,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“What’s new here?” he asked. “The classic definition of insanity by Einstein is to do something the same and expect a different result. We’ve been talking about elements of this strategy for the last 15 yrs—working through partners, building partner capacity. The problem is partners are independent actors and they’re not reliable. I’m not sure how this ‘new’ strategy will achieve anything new.”
With the ISIS strategy light on a policy framework for Syria, the congressional staffer said there was already discussion of adding an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill calling for a comprehensive Syria strategy.
The unclassified portions of the document do not call for additional resources, such as more troops or substantial supplementary funding, for the strategy. But Trump, in April, delegated what the Pentagon calls “force management authority”—that is, the power to set troop levels— to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Sources familiar with the classified version of the document said it doesn’t deviate from the portrait the unclassified version presents, nor does it add significant additional detail.
Mattis, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are slated to brief senators on the anti-ISIS strategy on Wednesday afternoon and provide an update on the war’s progress. Among the discussion subjects, Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said, will be “the importance of integrating military operations with political and diplomatic efforts.”
“We think about ISIS like a Risk gameboard: pieces with territory on the map that we have to conquer. But that’s not the power of ISIS,” said the Atlantic Council’s McFate. “It’s not a link to territory, it’s an idea. Without dealing with the idea, someone else will take it up.”