Tragedy in London after a series of terror attacks on Saturday left at least seven people dead and dozens injured, less than two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Manchester. It follows a series of dizzying events around the world last week. It began with perhaps the most direct insight, so far, from Secretary of Defense James Mattis on the Trump Administration’s military strategy. Then came a deadly attack in the diplomatic quarters of Kabul and culminated in Washington’s dramatic withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement on Thursday. The Cipher Brief’s Leone Lakhani spoke to Michael Morell, former Acting and Deputy Director of the CIA, to get his thoughts on the week’s events.
The Cipher Brief: Let’s start with Saturday’s terror attacks in London. This is the latest in a string of violent attacks in the UK – is this part of a coordinated campaign against the UK by extremists? Or is it possible that it’s multiple, unconnected, lone wolves? How does the threat in the UK compare to the threat in the rest of Europe? What about the United States?
Michael Morell: I think there was an expectation on the part of the general public in Europe and the United States that, as the ISIS caliphate was on it last legs, the threat from ISIS would be reduced as well. But that expectation was wrong. We always knew that the threat would get worse before it gets better – for two reasons. One is that ISIS is telling new recruits, “don’t come to fight with us in Iraq and Syria; rather, stay home and conduct attacks there.” Two, is that many of the foreign fighters who came to Iraq and Syria, at least the ones that did not die on the battlefield there, are coming home. And when they come home, they will conduct attacks.
The recent attacks also underscore the importance of the continuing threat from the ISIS-affiliated groups outside of Iraq and Syria. We now know that the Manchester bomber had significant contact with ISIS in Libya.
TCB: Over the past 2-3 years, we’ve seen lone wolves attacking soft targets with easily obtainable weapons – vehicles, knives, guns (in the U.S.). After so many instances, have we made any progress in combatting the lone wolf phenomenon? Is this the new normal?
MM: No, it is very difficult to prevent lone wolf attacks – for all sorts of reasons. And, no matter how far you push back the security perimeters at key locations, there will also be that place where the secure area ends and the non-secure area starts. That will always be vulnerable.
TCB: We saw another a deadly terrorist attack in Kabul last week, which brought Afghanistan back into the spotlight. How can the United States affect the security situation there?
MM: With 80 people killed and hundreds wounded, this was one of the largest attacks in Kabul in recent years. It is a stark reminder of how poor the security situation is in Afghanistan today. I saw General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testify a couple of weeks ago, and he defined the situation on the ground as a stalemate. I don’t think it’s a stalemate. I think we are losing. The Taliban today control more territory than they did at any time since they were driven from power in 2001. They are putting several key Afghan cities at risk. The number of terrorist attacks in government-controlled areas is growing. ISIS has a foothold in the country. The situation is as bad as it has been in a number of years.
The President has a big decision to make – whether to put additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan, not to themselves fight the enemy but to increase our training of and our support to Afghan security forces. But, I think it is important to be realistic here. The idea of defeating the Taliban or of forcing them to the negotiating table with a few thousand additional troops is not realistic. We couldn’t do that when we had 100,000 troops on the ground. What makes us think that is going to happen with just a few thousand more. I’m in no way advocating going back in big or taking on the fighting ourselves. I’m suggesting that it is time for a serious and sober strategic review of the best way forward there.
TCB: Looking back at the week, we saw Secretary of Defense, James Mattis in his first television interview, give perhaps the most direct insight we’ve had into the government’s military strategy, particularly in the battle against ISIS. Did anything in particular catch your attention?
MM: The first thing that struck me is just how lucky we are to have Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense. He is a man of enormous integrity – that came through in the interview. Mattis is a man who says what he thinks. He is a man who is not going to shy away from telling the President what he thinks. That is an extraordinarily important trait with any president, particularly this one.
As Mattis described the Trump Administration’s approach to the fight against ISIS, I was struck by how similar it is to the Obama Administration’s approach. Trump is not taking a radically different approach here. In fact, the two foundations of Obama’s policy have been maintained. One, local troops are doing the fighting; U.S. forces are there to advise and assist, and they are there to provide things the local forces cannot, such as air power and intelligence; but U.S. forces are not doing the fighting themselves. Two, extreme care is being taken to avoid collateral damage. Mattis said that the policy on collateral damage has not changed. He emphasized this several times in the interview.
So, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it turns out that candidate Trump’s “secret plan” to defeat ISIS was President Obama’s plan. To be fair to Trump, however, one president following in the footsteps of a previous president, particularly on national security, is not atypical in American history. When President Obama was running for President in 2008, for example, he was critical of President Bush’s approach to counterterrorism. But, when he got into office he basically maintained Bush’s approach.
TCB: Did you hear from Mattis anything different from the Obama Administration’s approach?
MM: Yes, two things that stood out, but I would call them tactical differences, not strategic differences. One was that our policy is now to surround and kill them where they are as opposed to the previous Administration’s approach, which was attrition, pushing them and killing them from place to place so that they get weaker and weaker. Mattis explained why this is a better approach – the old policy risked allowing foreign fighters to get out and possibly return to their home countries where they could attempt to conduct attacks. This new approach makes sense to me for just the reason Mattis outlined.
The second difference was the delegation of authority. The Obama Administration required the Department of Defense, and other national security agencies, to come to the White House for many tactical decisions, even the smallest. What Mattis was describing was a significant change in that policy – delegating to those who have the necessary skills and experience to make the decisions, without having to come back to Washington, and especially to the White House, for approval.
There is another side to this argument, though. Some would say that war is too important to leave to the generals. Some would say that the Obama White House’s approach prevented many bad decisions from being made. “They want to do what?!” was something that was said not infrequently by Obama seniors.
My view is that you have to find the right balance. What’s the right balance? Probably requiring approval for any decision that could have strategic consequence. Let’s hope that Mattis has found the right balance.
TCB: But he used some strong words to describe the campaign – that they were using “annihilation tactics;” aiming to “shatter” ISIS’s sense of invincibility; and “squash the enemy’s ability.”
MM: Yes, as I said earlier, he speaks his mind. One of the things that caught my attention was Mattis saying that the Trump Administration has accelerated the fight. While that might be true in a tactical, day-to-day sense, I think it is accurate to say that the Administration actually slowed the fight in a significant, strategic way – by waiting six months to make a decision to arm the Syrian Kurds. As you know, the Syrian Kurds will be key to taking Raqqa from ISIS.
The Obama Administration was ready to make that decision during the transition in December. They were willing to make it so that the Trump Administration would not have to take the heat from the Turkish government, which strongly opposed the move. It was a smart thing to do, but the incoming trip team waved Obama off. It slowed the attack on Raqqa by six months. That is not acceleration.
TCB: One of the key questions for the ISIS campaign is what happens in the “day after” scenario. Mattis said he informed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of all military factors, and that State and DoD are tied tightly together. Was that reassuring, given proposed cuts that affect diplomacy and key positions at State and DoD that remain unfilled?
MM: What I heard the Secretary essentially say was that military success is a necessary condition for ultimately defeating this group in Iraq and Syria, but it’s not sufficient. Sufficiency requires a political solution in Iraq and in Syria. That political solution must be one that gives the Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria a sense that they have a stake in their country’s future. If you can’t achieve that, then extremism will continue to flourish and ISIS, either under that name or another name, will return in a big way. What concerns me is I don’t hear anyone at State or anyone in the White House talking about this piece of the fight. Mattis is doing the military piece well. Where is the political piece?
One of the interesting things about this national security team is that there is no one who has actually made foreign policy before. We have several former military officers, a former businessman, a former Senator, and a former Congressman. Perhaps that is why we are missing the political piece.
TCB: In terms of North Korea, Mattis said a conflict with the North “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” Does Washington truly understand the North Korean threat?
MM: What I heard Mattis say, with those words, is that he understands that there is not a military solution to the North Korea problem – for two reasons. One, is that we cannot take out, with a military strike, all of the country’s nuclear weapons and its capability to produce more weapons. Leaving just one nuclear behind is one too many. Two, is that a U.S. military strike on North Korea would, with high probability, unleash the Second Korean War. The consequences of that would be devastating.
TCB: Last week ended with another major development, and that was the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Can you give me a sense of the short-term and long-term national security impacts of withdrawing from the climate deal?
MM: This is the worst decision the President has made in his short time in office. The negative implications of this will profound – for the Republican Party, for our economy, and for our national security.
Global warming is causing greater competition for resources, primarily arable land and water. This is going to result in increased conflicts around the world. It already has. The crisis in Darfur, which began in 2003 and is still ongoing, is believed by many experts to have been caused in part by global warming.
Also, I don’t think it is possible to overstate the blow this has done to U.S. leadership in the world. I think former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it best when we said that world leaders have no higher responsibility than ensuring we have a healthy planet for future generations. The U.S. just stepped back from that.
TCB: We’re seeing China step into areas where the U.S. has previously led – climate and trade, for instance. How can China take advantage of Trump’s announcement on the climate deal? Can the U.S. compensate for this by leading in different areas? If so, which areas?
MM: I think China sees a huge opportunity with Donald Trump as our president. They see a strong likelihood for a significant U.S. withdrawal from the world, and they see that playing right into their hands. They see themselves as taking up the slack.
I don’t think it is too strong to say that we may eventually look back at this period as a key turning point in the relative influence of the United States in the world and China in the world – not because we do not have the resources to continue to play that leadership role but because we have chosen not to do so. This started with the Obama Administration and it is accelerating with the Trump Administration. In this regard, I think that the most important speech given in January 2017 was not Donald Trump’s inaugural. It was Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos, where he basically said if the United States is not going to lead, we will. Follow us. The U.S. will pay a price for this.
TCB: What about Europe? President Trump just returned from Europe, where he ruffled feathers by not reaffirming Article 5 at NATO. Then we saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel declare Europe could no longer rely on the U.S. So what could the repercussions be for the U.S. in Europe?
MM: I saw an interesting dichotomy in the President’s first overseas trip. In the Middle East, the president reassured our allies and partners there that we have their back on Iran. As you know, during the last Administration, these countries were deeply concerned that we were abandoning them. Trump corrected that, and that was a good thing (now he needs to deliver there, but that is another issue). But then he goes to Europe and does just the opposite. He doesn’t reassure them. He doesn’t reassure them that we stand by our Article 5 commitment. He doesn’t reassure them on climate change. He doesn’t reassure them that we too see Russia as an adversary.
TCB: How dangerous is that? Or is it dangerous?
MM: It absolutely is dangerous. Having strong allies and partners are a key part of maintaining stability in the world. Our NATO allies are the most important part of that global alliance system. Russia is the big winner here. One of Putin’s key objectives is weakening NATO.
This is part of the loss of U.S. leadership story as well. It was no coincidence that Trump’s failed trip to Europe was followed by Merkel saying that Germany needs to expand its cooperation with China in these uncertain times. Cause and effect.