The Battle Against ISIS: The Trump Administration’s 30-day Review

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This week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is expected to deliver the 30-day review President Donald Trump ordered regarding the United States’ strategy to fight ISIS. The formal presidential memorandum, which was released on January 28, stated that “it is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated” and called for the “development of a new plan to defeat ISIS.”

General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the review includes government-wide input from the State Department and Treasury Department, as well as the Intelligence Community.

“This is a political-military plan,” Dunford told the crowd at the Brookings Institution last Thursday, not just a military proposal. In addition, it is not narrowly focused on ISIS, but provides a broader look at the challenges of the “transregional threat” from ISIS as well as other extremist groups such as al Qaeda, he said.

A “full range of options” will be presented to the President, Dunford said. Given that this is a “dynamic environment,” the response to Trump’s order “is not the beginning or the end of the dialogue that we’ve had with the President,” according to Dunford.

“This is an opportunity for the administration to look at an enduring challenge, to reflect back on what we have been doing over the last couple years, to think about this problem in a broader context, and then to move forward and do things in a way that accelerates our progress against extremism,” Dunford explained.

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman to discuss the purpose of the 30-day review, how the findings in the report could affect U.S. counterterrorism strategy moving forward, and where the U.S. currently stands in the effort to defeat ISIS.

The Cipher Brief: What could come from the Trump Administration’s 30-day ISIS report?

Bruce Hoffman: There is a strong possibility that it will introduce a new strategy or a new approach. One of U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign platforms was that the struggle against ISIS wasn’t going well and that we needed a change. He promised to produce a new strategy shortly after assuming office. So all of this is consistent with one of candidate Trump’s main campaign messages.

TCB: Part of the rhetoric that has come out of the Trump Administration has focused on increasing military force or boots on the ground to combat ISIS. Would that be an effective strategy?

BH: One of the rationales behind the 30-day review must surely have been the Trump Administration’s reluctance to continue with the Obama Administration’s plan to defeat ISIS. During the campaign, that strategy had been criticized as insufficiently aggressive and too slow in producing decisive results, and therefore, something significantly different was required.

These criticisms also reflected a view that the longer ISIS has been able to maintain the fiction of a proto-state in its self-styled “caliphate,” the more entrenched it became in the Levant with attendant repercussions across the Middle East and North Africa. In other words, the more difficult and longer that it has taken to dislodge ISIS from western Iraq, the more appealing its message was becoming. After all, much of ISIS’ propaganda is predicated on the fact that it has been able to do in essence what no other country has been able to do with one exception over the past century – redraw the map the Middle East and dissolve at least one of the Western-imposed geographical boundaries created after World War I. In addition, ISIS has also been able to accomplish what few other terrorist organization’s historically have also ever been capable of achieving: seizing considerable territory, holding it for a protracted period of time, and ruling a large indigenous population.

Fifteen years ago, Osama bin Laden pledged to dissolve what he railed against as the artificially drawn borders imposed by the West on the Levant and other Muslim lands in the Middle East following World War I. ISIS is seen by its loyalists and supporters as having delivered what bin Laden only promised: providing the clearest repudiation of the 100-year-old Sykes-Picot arrangement.  This alone has hugely burnished ISIS’ reputation and greatly enhanced its appeal – as evidenced by the tens of thousands of foreign fighters from over a hundred countries throughout the globe who have traveled to the region to defend the caliphate.  Taking back that territory, liberating its populace, and destroying ISIS’ caliphate is thus essential to undermining its appeal as well as degrading the local, regional, and international threats that it continues to present.

The Obama Administration’s strategy in countering ISIS rested on three pillars derived from the 2015 National Security Strategy: leadership attrition, training host nations to carry the burden, and countering violent extremism. There has been progress on all three levels, but at the same time ISIS has remained stubbornly entrenched. In fact, its global presence has expanded over the past three years rather than contracted – despite all our efforts. This was the conclusion reached by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in a report released last summer, where it revealed that when the U.S. commenced the current effort to defeat ISIS in 2014, the group had a presence in only seven countries. According to the report, that number had nearly doubled the following year, and as of last August, the NCTC reported that ISIS was now “fully operational” in 18 countries. Clearly, the spread of ISIS elsewhere while we are still struggling to contain the group in western Iraq and the Levant explains why the Trump Administration has sought a new strategy.

TCB: What can we do differently?

BH: First and foremost, in every country that we’ve attempted to build up host-nation military forces to champion the fight themselves against terrorism, those efforts have failed. In late 2014, for instance, President Barack Obama cited Yemen as an exemplar of the success of our strategy to effectively train local forces to take the lead in the fight against terrorism. But like Mali, we could not train Yemeni forces fast enough or make them sufficiently capable to counter more rapidly growing terrorist numbers and a geographically expanding threat.

These are not the only two places where we’ve devoted considerable time, effort, and money into building up indigenous forces with nugatory results. This was also the problem in Iraq, as we saw during the summer of 2014 when ISIS forces swept across the border from Syria, stopping only at the gates of Baghdad. We have also encountered similar frustrations in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the 30-day review will likely focus on why our training and equipping of host-nation forces for counterterrorism has gone so disastrously awry and what can and should be done to improve the effectiveness of those efforts.

This inevitably leads to the question of how much more involvement there should be by U.S. ground forces. Several thousand U.S. Special Operations Forces, advisers, and other logistical support personnel are already deployed against ISIS at various locations both in Iraq and Kurdistan. The question is whether that number will need to grow in terms of a larger and perhaps even more active advisory and support cadre and indeed whether, as has recently been suggested, this might additionally necessitate the deployment of division-size U.S. ground forces for extended, but time-limited, periods to more rapidly and effectively take down ISIS’ remaining urban redoubts and rural strongholds.

Once this is accomplished, the plan would likely be to turn control of these liberated cities and areas over to local forces for stabilization and policing and thus ensure that ISIS doesn’t resurface or reemerge. The inability of Iraqi security forces to do either will likely also have been a focus of the 30-day review. Indeed, this was highlighted in a distressing article that appeared in last week’s Washington Post. As the prolonged campaign to re-take Mosul has dragged on far longer than anticipated, a recrudescence of ISIS guerrilla activities in newly liberated areas is now alarmingly occurring and threatening whatever progress against ISIS has hitherto been accomplished.

TCB: Can the U.S. look to its “surge” strategy, which was employed in Iraq during the Sunni Awakening in 2007 to 2009 when al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated, as a model for future strategy?

BH: It’s a strategy that already has proven successful in Iraq against an earlier variant of this same enemy. The U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army each amassed considerable knowledge from the bloody retaking of terrorist-held cities like Falluja, Ar-Ramadi, Tikrit, and elsewhere in western Iraq a decade ago. Military operations in urban terrain, essentially the painstakingly concerted takedown of the terrorists’ urban lairs, followed by more sustainable local security and stability, is something that the U.S. military already knows and has considerable experience and expertise in accomplishing.

One of the other main shortcomings of the current strategy and approach has been a failure to assuage the local Sunni population’s concerns about what follows the destruction of ISIS and its caliphate in western Iraq. This reflects a fundamental misreading of ISIS’ original strategy after it had seized this territory. I would argue that the greatest depredations and most heinous atrocities committed by ISIS in western Iraq were done to bind the Sunni population as closely to them as possible. In other words, the depredations and the horrors that were inflicted on Shia, Yazidi, Kurds, Chaldeans, and other minorities in these locales were part of a deliberate ISIS campaign to retain the local Sunni population’s loyalty by creating the belief that there was no alternative to ISIS rule, since if ISIS were ever dislodged, great retribution and retaliation would be visited onto the Sunni population as a result of ISIS war crimes.

This is the vise that the local Sunni population in western Iraq is caught in right now. They are rightly fearful of potential violent reprisals that may be visited upon them by the irregular Shi’a militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, who are closely aligned with Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah. There have already been reports of widespread civilian executions and other war crimes inflicted against the local Sunni populations in Ramadi and Tikrit by Shi’a irregular forces following the liberation of both those cities.

The involvement of these irregular forces alongside the Iraqi army and security forces threatens to result in the permanent alienation of the Sunni population of western Iraq who themselves have also suffered terribly under ISIS rule. There appear to be few if any guarantees for their security once these irregular Shi’a, forces – who local Sunnis see as natural predators – descend on areas of western Iraq previously controlled by ISIS.

I suspect that this dimension of the current campaign will also figure prominently in the 30-day review – that is, whether larger numbers of U.S. military forces will be called upon to intervene as a far more persuasive guarantor of the security of the local population.

TCB: Could this lead to an increase in U.S. troop deployments, or could we accomplish this objective with current troop levels?

BH: This is exactly one of the problems that the 30-day review has to address. The terrorist threat has grown appreciably over the past few years while the U.S. military, especially its combat ground forces, have diminished precipitously.  Any escalated deployment of U.S. combat forces is going to strain a military that’s already exhausted, but which has also unwisely been downsized since the supposed ends of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

TCB: How could the new Cabinet members in the Trump Administration approach the report and the development of an ISIS strategy?

BH: Defense Secretary James Mattis is among this country’s foremost military field commanders and strategists. He is someone who has a profound understanding of, and deep personal experience fighting, the forms of irregular and hybrid warfare that have consumed our attention since the 9/11 attacks. He brings unique experience, knowledge and perspective that will be invaluable to the 30-day review.

Throughout the war on terrorism it seems as if U.S. counterterrorism strategy has swung from one extreme to the other – from invading and occupying countries, which clearly didn’t work, to a far lighter footprint, which also hasn’t worked – given both the rise of ISIS and the continuing threat posed by al Qaeda.

My sense is that any new strategy must avoid replicating the mistakes of the past and better apply the lessons of our now considerable experience fighting terrorists to the current threats and security challenges.

TCB: Can we really defeat the threat posed by groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda? What would it take for them to become obsolete like the West German Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang?

BH: First, the Red Army Faction only had about three dozen hardcore operatives throughout its 30-year history and the three generations that it produced. It had a few hundred activists providing support, but in reality that movement never amounted to more than a handful of actual gunmen and bombers. Even though they were small in number, the Red Army Faction nonetheless completely frustrated the efforts of a very sophisticated Western state to eliminate them completely. A lot of the techniques that we routinely apply to counterterrorism today, such as fusion centers and data mining, were all pioneered by West German authorities during the 1970s and 1980s for use against the Red Army Faction. And, at the end of the day, even these highly sophisticated measures, especially for their time, never actually eliminated the Red Army Faction. In 1996, the group put itself out of business by announcing a self-declared cessation of their struggle. I believe that the most salient factor in that decision was that the Red Army Faction no longer had access to the sanctuary and safe haven that East Germany had once provided.

This, therefore, is one of the keys today to understanding how to defeat ISIS. It mainly, but certainly not entirely, is a problem of access to sanctuary and safe havens. I believe the 30-day review will have among one of its central elements a concerted plan to more systematically and expeditiously roll back the myriad of sanctuaries and safe havens that ISIS has established over the past couple of years and thus decisively reverse the expansion that the NCTC report from last August charts.

Second, given the gravity of the terrorist threat today, a more robust, and hence demonstrably more effective, military response will likely emerge from the 30-day review to deliver results more expeditiously than the two-plus years it has thus far taken to dislodge ISIS from Mosul. This is not to say that it will completely ignore or even abjure from using the vast array of equally essential non-kinetic counterterrorist measures at our disposal: but that it will recognize that sometimes there is no alternative to directly, militarily taking on and defeating entrenched terrorist forces.

The leadership attrition strategy at the center of our current counterterrorist strategy for the past decade has been successful at degrading terrorist groups, but we now arguably need to achieve a more decisive and immediate outcome.

Our expectations, though, have to be realistic. Whatever strategy is adopted will not result in the complete elimination of the terrorist threat from ISIS. But, more aggressively depriving the group of the sanctuaries and safe havens that have sustained it will be a critical step forward in decisively weakening ISIS and producing tangibly improved local and regional security conditions. 

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