The Team Trump plan to defeat ISIS is more like a loose diagram—with most of the options previously pondered by the Obama administration, according to three officials who have read drafts of the plan that was officially discussed at the White House Monday.
The lack of many new options stems from the hard fact that defeating armed insurgent groups takes more than “bombing the hell” out of them, as President Donald Trump pledged on the campaign trail. It also shows that Trump may have been over-ambitious in mandating a brand-new strategy be delivered a little over a month after taking office, when many of the top posts across the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the State Department remain unfilled.
So key parts of the plan to destroy the so-called Islamic State sound familiar. They include militarily defeating the existing fighters in Iraq and Syria; hunting down other groups pledged to ISIS; drying up the financial resources enabling ISIS to fight and recruit; and defeating the ideology that makes the group attractive, those three officials tell The Daily Beast.
Options for setting up safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians are also included in the plan, but those proposals are even more fraught with risk than they were when considered by President Barack Obama, as there are now more Syrian regime forces backed by Russia and Iran getting ever closer to the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in the south—and more Turkish forces on the battlefield who have at time targeted the U.S.’s Kurdish allies.
The main changes to the current plan would likely come in the form of breaking some old alliances and making news ones. Trump officials have spoken disparagingly of some of the Syrian fighters the Obama administration supported, calling them riddled with ISIS and al Qaeda sympathizers. Turkey is trying to pry the U.S. away from its Syrian Kurdish proxy force, and Trump himself has talked of fighting ISIS together with Russia, though the Pentagon is not ready to cooperate with Moscow.
The ISIS plan evolved until the very last moment when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sent it to the White House, ahead of the Monday meeting of senior agency heads to discuss how to flesh it out. Mattis wanted to make sure it was circulated widely through the Pentagon and beyond, to avoid a travel ban-style backlash from agencies who felt left out of the loop, the officials said. All the senior officials discussing it at the White House Monday had reviewed previous versions or taken part in the drafting process.
But major vacancies at key agencies like Treasury meant staffers writing the document didn’t know how far to take it, one said. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was not confirmed until halfway through the drafting process. The official said they couldn’t get ready answers to questions like “How will you target ISIS finances’ differently than President Barack Obama did?” or “How hard will you push Congress to widen U.S. authority to go after ISIS, ala the President George W. Bush authorization to hunt al Qaeda?
The officials describing the frenzied process of coming up with a plan spoke anonymously, and were careful not to describe too many details, because of their fear of retribution by the leak-hunting Trump administration.
The mixed messages on foreign policy coming out of the White House versus what Trump’s officials say in the field only added to the confusion, which explains why chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford called the document a “framework” in remarks at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., last week.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis stressed Monday that it’s a starting point for discussion rather than a multiple-point action plan for Trump to choose from, and that it draws on multiple lines of effort from multiple government agencies.
“It is truly whole of government,” he told reporters at the Pentagon Monday.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was a mantra for the Obama ISIS fight. Ret. Gen. John Allen, special envoy to the coalition to defeat ISIL (the preferred Obama-era acronym for ISIS) described it as a “whole of government” effort in congressional testimony in 2014. That phrase was repeated by his successor who still holds that post, Brett McGurk, one of the few holdovers from the Obama administration. The “lines of effort” included targeting ISIS from the air, training and working with local forces, and working with allies and local law enforcement to block attacks on the U.S. homeland—all elements expected to remain part of the current plan.
The lack of originality in the options is also because there are no easy solutions to the Rubik’s Cube of ISIS: an armed insurgent group turned occupying army turned government more brutally efficient than the ones it's supplanting. The group thrives in the chaos of failed states, finding willing followers who buy into the so-called Islamic State’s twisted promise of a righteous mission that guarantees money, power and most of all paradise to the disenfranchised or disenchanted of the Mideast and beyond.
Defense Secretary Mattis already wrestled with these problems when he headed Central Command as a Marine general. The more U.S. troops you put on the ground, the more antibodies you create among locals as you begin to look more like occupiers, and the more American lives you risk. That happened in both Iraq and Afghanistan, without much to show for it when the Americans withdrew and the newly trained local forces couldn’t hold the ground.
Under Obama, U.S. officials felt like they had an uphill fight to get approval to strike some targets, or to put their military advisors on the battlefield alongside their local partners. But those permissions were largely granted, which is why U.S. advisors are in the thick of the fighting to drive ISIS out of the Iraqi city of Mosul right now.
But there hasn’t been a big appetite for putting larger numbers of conventional troops on the ground in Iraq because the Iraqis don’t want any more of them there—a sentiment that’s grown only stronger with the Iraqi parliament’s backlash over Iraq’s inclusion in the Trump travel ban. Adding more troops to Syria is even dicier, with more limited supply lines, more crowded air space, and a multitude of armed groups with alliances that can change by the day.
That’s why Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, and Special Operations commander Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas both have cautioned against flooding the war zone with large numbers of U.S. troops.
“Truthfully, I think his logic, which has been compelling, is that more troops on the ground may mean you own the problem when you’re done with it, as opposed to his approach of by with and through,” local forces, Thomas said of Votel’s battle plan. “At the end of the day, the places in which we defeat ISIL need to be owned by the local people,” he said, in answer to a Daily Beast question at a special operations conference outside Washington, D.C.
As for fighting the ideology, officials from Teams Obama and Trump seem to agree that Muslim leaders and clerics must lead the fight, as the U.S. can’t mediate what many Muslim leaders call a war for the heart of their religion.
Trump administration officials have already signaled one way to fight it is to embrace Muslim coalition partners like Egypt as they fight out the dissension in their midst. But Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al Sisi is already facing charges of using the spectre of militancy to crack down on any dissent—causing the kind of unrest that helped spark the Arab Spring protest in Cairo, and the civil war in Syria, thus helping give rise to ISIS in the first place.
The U.S. has also tried to help elevate moderate Muslim voices, funding coalition partners’ efforts to highlight ISIS defectors stories on line, for instance. But those efforts have been largely dwarfed by ISIS’s messaging onslaught via social media and aided by encrypted apps and the dark web, even with platforms like Twitter and Facebook shutting down ISIS-identified profiles at a record rate.
The last administration took a “do no harm” approach, in that they stopped publicly engaging with ISIS on social media, and scrupulously avoided referring to ISIS or al Qaeda or any other group as “Islamic terrorists” at the request of Muslim coalition allies who said ISIS used the guise of religion to justify their killing spree.
But Trump campaigned on the slogan that he would defeat “radical Islamic terrorists” and he took Obama to task for failing to call them such; he’d been schooled by his now-resigned National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who insisted that you can’t defeat an enemy you can’t name.
Yet senior military officials like Gen. Dunford still avoid using the term, in deference to their Muslim coalition partners. Dunford refused to condemn the term, in answer to a Daily Beast question at the Brookings event, but he studiously continued to use the old Obama administration phrase “violent extremist.”
Newly named National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told his staff last week that he didn’t find the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” helpful, according to a senior administration official, and first reported by The New York Times. The official said McMaster wasn’t correcting the president, but was speaking from the experience of working directly with local forces who are Muslim. That’s a distinction with little difference in an era where Trump’s comments reach remote parts of the globe via cable TV or smartphones.
Another person at the meeting said McMaster referred to ISIS as “Daesh”—an Arabic acronym that the terrorist group finds offensive—because he considers what they do “un-Islamic.”
The Trump White House’s Strategic Initiatives Group has been working on a new national security strategy where “radical Islam” or “radical Islamic terrorism” is likely to make a pronounced appearance, according to one of the group’s members, Dr. Sebastian Gorka. He defended the phrase in answer to a Daily Beast question at a recent special operations conference.
Gorka has drawn criticism for calling Islam a martial religion that makes it impossible for followers to separate faith from state. He explained that blending made it easy for ISIS to hijack the religion and paint themselves as leaders.
“Don’t listen to me, I’m a white-skinned Catholic,” he said. “Listen to our partners in the region. [Egypt’s] President Sisi…says in an open meeting to the most powerful clerics in the world, ‘you have to help me affect a religious revolution in Islam because the jihadis are winning.”
McMaster and Gorka are likely to be in violent agreement over the scale of the threat, however. In the same all-hands meeting at the NSC last week, McMaster told the staffers he thought the Obama administration went too far in labeling all militants as “violent extremists” as he believes ISIS-inspired terrorists are more of a threat to American safety than anti-government or white power extremists.
As for the last element of defeating ISIS, military officials like Special Operation Command’s Thomas say good governance has to follow a successful military campaign or the problem returns. It’s not clear Trump will support that part of the equation, with his campaign’s rejection of “nation building” and proposed budget cuts to the State Department which normally runs such programs to steady a fledgling government.
Mattis, for one, is on the record opposing such measures. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately,” Mattis told a conference in 2013—remarks that were widely circulating in Washington on Monday. “The more we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”