Donald Trump’s favorite crutch to lean on these days is the idea that he “inherited a mess.” But with respect to the ongoing U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, Trump actually inherited a campaign that is approaching military success. As Colin Kahl and I noted in a previous Shadow Government post, the Islamic State is reeling from the synchronized blows being inflicted by the U.S. military in cooperation with its coalition partners and Iraqi and Syrian partners. The self-proclaimed caliphate’s morale, resources, manpower, and territory have been severely reduced; the organization is hanging on for dear life in its remaining strongholds. Barring some catastrophic U.S. policy misstep, the defeat of the Islamic State — at least in Iraq and Syria — is probably just a matter of time.
This victory, however, will create new dilemmas for the Trump administration. There will be thorny questions about what sort of political endgame to pursue in Syria and whether to leave a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq. More broadly, there will be the question of how to wage the broader global war on terror (GWOT), a struggle that has been ongoing for 15 years now and will certainly outlive the defeat of the Islamic State. After all, liberating Mosul and Raqqa will not defeat other international jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and its affiliates, nor will it rule out the possibility that elements of the Islamic State will go underground and then resurface a few years down the road — as indeed happened with its forerunner, al Qaeda in Iraq. Nor will it solve the broader problem of radicalization and extremism in the Muslim world. And so a key question for Trump is what politico-military strategy the administration should pursue in an ongoing struggle against violent jihadist organizations.
In one recent article, as well as a longer report, my good friend (and Elephants in the Room contributor) Peter Feaver and I answer that question by outlining and assessing the strategic options available to U.S. policymakers. We argue that there are four broad options for the GWOT after the Islamic State — all of which have some appeal, but all of which also have real, and in some cases crippling, liabilities.
At one extreme, the United States could try military disengagement, which would essentially entail pulling all U.S. forces — even trainers and advisers — out of the greater Middle East in hopes of averting the ideological “blowback” that is often alleged to cause the jihadist threat. This approach is often favored by academic critics of the GWOT, but as we argue, it is both politically infeasible — given the significant fears Americans have regarding terrorism — and unlikely to reduce the threat as significantly as its proponents argue. The result could be dangerous indeed: the United States would still be in the jihadists’ cross-hairs, but would have handcuffed itself in fighting back against that threat.
At the other extreme, America could choose a GWOT surge — a heavy-footprint, heavy-investment approach comparable to that taken in Iraq and Afghanistan at the height of our post-9/11 conflicts there. This strategy would involve decisive military operations, featuring tens of thousands of U.S. troops if necessary, to rapidly defeat the most dangerous terrorist organizations and clear out their safe havens. Crucially, it would also entail intensive efforts (a la the Bush-era “freedom agenda”) to address root causes by fostering political liberalization and effective, pluralistic governance in societies from which terrorist groups emerge. The problem here, of course, is that it is questionable whether this strategy can be executed effectively at any price — and it certainly cannot be executed at a price that the American people and their leaders are willing to pay over a long enough period to succeed. The result might thus be strategic failure at an exorbitantly high cost.
That leaves two middle-ground options. First, the light-footprint approach. This would resemble the strategy pursued by the Obama administration after the killing of Obama bin Laden in 2011 but before the Islamic State fully emerged three years ago. It would rely on drone strikes and other limited-liability forms of attack to hold the most dangerous terrorist organizations at bay, while assiduously avoiding any significant ground operations and relying on local partners to provide boots on the ground where needed. During the 2011-2014 period, this approach delivered good operational results — for a time — in places like Yemen, and it entails far less military risk and financial cost than GWOT surge.
The trouble, though, is that even in the best circumstances it simply contains the threat and thus involves something akin to perpetual conflict — “mowing the grass,” as the Israelis would say. And as the collapse of Iraq in 2014 demonstrates, light-footprint may not be robust enough to keep the most dangerous jihadist organizations from defeating local partner forces and carving out safe havens from which they can consolidate their strength and plot major attacks. The United States may thus fall into a dangerous pattern whereby its strategic position in the GWOT deteriorates and, as happened in Iraq and Syria from 2014 onward, it therefore finds itself forces to intervene more decisively under more adverse circumstances than before.
That leaves the final option, which we call counter-ISIS plus. As the name implies, counter-ISIS plus resembles and perhaps modestly exceeds the culmination of the Obama administration’s response to the Islamic State — in other words, the level of effort reached in Iraq and Syria by 2015-2016. This approach would combine aggressive air campaigns involving both manned and unmanned platforms, special operations forces raids, advise-and-assist operations, and deployment of modest numbers of ground combat forces as part of a continuing effort not just to contain the most dangerous terror groups but to roll them back and defeat them militarily. The total footprint of this option would be between 5,000 and 15,000 troops — significantly more than the light-footprint option, but far less than the GWOT surge — and would operate according to permissive rules of engagement that would allow them to take the initiative both in direct action missions and in supporting partner forces.
As is the case today, this strategy would not include military efforts to remake Middle Eastern societies, although it would include diplomatic engagement aimed at modestly improving governance in countries such as Iraq. In essence, counter-ISIS plus aims not to cure the disease but to treat its worst symptoms — safe havens and undisrupted plotting that can lead to high-casualty attacks — quite aggressively.
To be sure, this strategy has plenty of liabilities. It risks greater U.S. casualties than the light-footprint approach. It requires a great deal of time and patience to produce results: witness the steady but painfully slow pace of the counter-Islamic State campaign since 2014. But this option nonetheless represents the best of a bad lot. The resource requirements are non-trivial but certainly affordable, if the current campaign — which cost roughly $6.2 billion over its first 18 months and was projected to cost another $7.5 billion for fiscal year 2017 — is any indication. This strategy also has a record of operational success when employed aggressively, as under the Bush administration in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11 and under the Obama administration against the Islamic State since 2014. If employed aggressively today, it would bring a significant amount of combat punch to the task of destroying terrorist organizations, eviscerating their leadership and middle management, killing their foot soldiers, and denying them their safe havens. Finally, this approach is probably the most politically viable option available today. It involves robust military action against a dangerous threat, thereby guarding against charges of “doing nothing” or “doing too little,” but it does not require a politically unsustainable tolerance for exorbitant economic and military costs.
You can find deeper analysis here. But the basic point — and perhaps the most important piece of advice for the Trump team — is that the United States must choose its GWOT strategy with eyes wide open. It is tempting to think — and Trump has often led his audiences to believe — that there is a silver bullet strategy that will allow the United States to defeat its jihadist enemies conclusively and at a tolerable cost. Yet this is probably not the case.
The affordable options will not deliver conclusive victory; the options that promise to defeat the threat once and for all cannot be executed at an acceptable price. The best any administration can do is to pursue an aggressive strategy of symptom management, one that will require great patience and persistence to produce even acceptable results over time. Even counter-ISIS plus will certainly not allow the United States to declare victory in the GWOT anytime soon — and Trump would make a big mistake if he took the Islamic State’s looming defeat in Iraq and Syria as an opportunity to do so. But it is the strategy best suited to allowing the United States to defend itself at a tolerable cost in an age of enduring terror.