Mattis Needs Luck to Explain ISIS Options to Trump

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

President Trump wanted a military plan from his generals to “totally obliterate ISIS.”

Instead, he is getting a series of political-military options put together not just by the Defense Department, but with input from the departments of State and Treasury, plus the Intelligence Community.

“We’re in the business of providing integrated options to the President to deal with the challenges that he’s articulated,” Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford told a Brookings Institution audience last Thursday.

He also said it would not only be “a whole of government approach,” but that “in this particular case, we’re talking about ISIS, but it’s also al Qaeda and other groups that present a trans-regional threat.”

Dunford described the “transregional threat” as arising from the flow of 45,000 foreign terrorist fighters into Iraq and Syria, plus money and resources that have come from over 100 countries.

The options, according to Dunford, were built around a much greater plan than just obliterating ISIS with quick major military actions that Trump referred to during the presidential campaign.

“I think to be successful,” Dunford said, you need to “cut the connective tissue between regional groups that now form a trans-regional threat … And then working in combination with local forces and coalition forces, drive the threat down to the level where local law enforcement and security forces can deal with that threat.”

The aim, according to Dunford, is “first and foremost” making ISIS “incapable then of planning and conducting operations against the United States., which is, at the end of the day, and I think unapologetically, our first priority.”

That’s not “obliteration,” but a recognition this is a long-term haul that the Pentagon got President Barack Obama to recognize and which forms the basic foundation for the anti-ISIS policy now underway.

For someone like Trump, whose knowledge of such matters has so far come from cable TV commentators, choosing among the options that Dunford is hinting at, is going to be a real test.

Of course, Campaigner Trump said back in November 2015, “I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me.” The Campaigner also said that he had “a secret plan” for ISIS, which he would not disclose.

If he stays true to course, his decision on the options Defense Secretary James Mattis delivered yesterday will not be publicly disclosed by the President. Campaigner Trump, back in September, said, “I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy what the plan is.” Before campaign rally audiences it was a crowd pleaser when it followed Trump’s lampooning the Obama Pentagon practice of announcing when the expected move against Mosul would take place.

Given today’s media world, I think leaks about the Mattis options will be out shortly. It will take longer to see the results of Trump’s decision.

One element of Campaigner Trump’s ISIS plan may be changed. Before the election, it appeared Russia would a partner. The issue came up in the January 28, phone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin where both sides said the two talked of “establishing real coordination … aimed at defeating ISIS.”

Note there is a difference between “coordination” and “cooperation.”

The U.S. is already doing the former, in working out how to deconflict individual U.S. and Russian military activities in Syria, mostly via air strikes.

Mattis, speaking at NATO headquarters on February 16, said, “We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level” with Russia. Dunford at Brookings stressed that in his discussion February 16 in Azerbaijan with counterpart, Russian General Valeriy Gerasimov showed no change in that policy. “I wouldn’t use the word cooperation,” he said. “That was not something we discussed last week, nor is it something I’ve been directed to do.”

By law, language carried in the fiscal 2017 Defense Authorization bill, prevents current federal funds from be used “for any bilateral military-to-military cooperation between the Governments of the United States and the Russian Federation” unless Mattis, in consultation with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, certifies that Moscow has “ceased its occupation of Ukrainian territory” and abides with the Minsk agreement for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.

There is a waiver provision, not for the President, but instead it’s in the hands of Mattis and Tillerson, if they believe cooperation is “in the national security interest of the United States.”

One more aspect of Dunford’s remarks are worth thinking about, since they appear outside Trump’s own immediate interest, which is focused on defeating ISIS.

“As we provide options to the President,” Dunford said, “we need to think about how do the facts on the ground support the political process in Geneva, that’s going to address the long-term stability and security inside of Syria?”

He included, “safety and humanitarian assistance that needs to be provided to people has to be addressed, and then the multiple divergent stakeholder’s views need to be addressed.”

In short, from the Pentagon point of view, “obliterating ISIS” means more than just a military victory but providing support to foreign military and police forces, and distributing humanitarian assistance abroad in order to get governmental stability in the area and keep ISIS or other terrorist groups from arising.

That sounds to me like today’s foreign aid—even nation-building – both anathema to Candidate Trump and at the top of the list for deep budget cuts in fiscal 2018, according to Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney.

Speaking about those budget plans, Mulvaney said that although the Defense Department will get a major $54 billion boost, the Trump plan also “reduces money we give to other nations” and provides for spending “less money overseas.”

Good luck to Mattis in explaining his options to Trump.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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