The clock is ticking as the Pentagon faces a July deadline to deliver President Trump a fresh menu of options to defeat ISIS.
And as if that weren’t enough, lawmakers on Capitol Hill keep pouncing on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to explain how the U.S. military intends to finish the job it started in Afghanistan 16 years ago.
Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are drafting a plan to “combat ISIS and defeat terrorism,” President Trump said Monday during his first Cabinet meeting at the White House. “We’re going to be having a news conference in two weeks on that fight, and you’ll see numbers that you would not have believed.”
The president is levying huge expectations on Mattis and Tillerson, and analysts warn that it could backfire. But John “JV” Venable, a retired military officer and research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, described both these leaders as smart “long-ball hitters” who still can take the pressure of short deadlines and an impatient commander-in-chief. “The president has been looking for a policy on how to win the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq for a while,” he said. “It’s a very complicated situation.”
The developing plan comes on the heels of an earlier review of the anti-ISIS fight that Trump ordered in January during his first week in office. Mattis told reporters May 19 that the president directed two significant changes: He delegated authority in order to take action “aggressively and in a timely manner” and also “directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.”
Mattis told CBS’s “Face the Nation” May 28 that the strategy “right now is to accelerate the campaign against ISIS.”
Presumably in July details will emerge on the next phase of the strategy. Venable cautioned to not expect any quick fixes, however. “Anytime you hear someone say they are going to develop a policy and you come out two days later with that policy, you know it’s not very well thought out,” he said. “This one, however, I know will be well thought out.”
Phillip Lohaus, a former intelligence officer and now a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, warned that any war strategy would be doomed if the president fails to clearly communicate his goals. Trump has to decide what he wants to accomplish, so the military can offer options for how to achieve those objectives, he said.
“Trump wants to eradicate ISIS. Everyone wants to do that. But what does that really mean? Get rid of the ideological underpinnings that drive Islamic extremism? Does that mean we focus on ISIS and not on al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other groups?” Lohaus asked. The problem is complicated by the fact that Trump is so inexperienced in national security matters and that his administration is embroiled in scandal.
If defeating ISIS is going to be the main focus, the Pentagon will have to propose ways to promote some form of lasting stability in Syria, and that likely would involve deploying more ground forces. “Mattis sounds like he would be more open to this idea than his predecessors in the Obama administration,” Lohaus said. Mattis also will need to come up with workable options to create a safe zones. “The dynamics are not conducive to a lasting cease-fire without a political solution.”
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Monday, Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, pressed Mattis to explain why the Pentagon is requesting $500 million to counter ISIS in Syria but makes no mention of, nor does it seek funding to go after, al-Qaeda. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford pushed back: “We do have a dedicated campaign against al-Qaeda in Syria. But it’s fair to say our priority in Syria has been ISIS.”
Mattis is maintaining a dual focus on ISIS and the deteriorating security in Afghanistan. He offered a candid take Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, saying, “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this as soon as possible.” He promised lawmakers some fresh recommendations by mid-July on how to turn things around. He agreed with committee Chairman John McCain that the Afghanistan fight has continued for years “strategy-free.”
McCain slammed the administration for sticking with a “don’t lose” war plan in Afghanistan instead of going for a win. Visibly irritated, he warned Mattis that, in the absence of White House leadership, Congress can’t help the Pentagon get the resources it needs. “I know that there are problems within the administration, but please don’t tell us that we have a strategy when we don’t.”
Venable said McCain’s ultimatums are more bluster than anything else. “If McCain were president, he would want more time. It’s easy to have a sniper rifle and start shooting from the Senate chair.”
Mattis reminded the Arizona lawmaker that “anyone who thinks a strategy — an integrated, interagency, whole-of-government strategy — can be done rapidly is probably someone who hasn’t dealt with it.” And he reassured McCain that “we are working it.”
Trump so far has stuck with the Obama blueprint, Lohaus said. And it doesn’t help that his White House is deeply divided on the issue. National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster is pushing for a greater military presence whereas Trump’s political adviser Steve Bannon is clamoring for a complete pullout. President Obama agreed to deploy up to 8,400 U.S. troops there. Trump has said the size of the force is being reviewed.
Lohaus predicts that stabilizing Afghanistan will require deeper involvement by U.S. armed forces because the non-military parts of government that could help, like the State Department, are not well resourced or equipped. State’s ability to do its job has deteriorated significantly over the past 15 years, as it has become more reliant on the military, he said. And the situation has gotten worse under Trump.
The president sounds as if he believes “generals can work magic,” said Lohaus. That reflects a misunderstanding of the role of the military and the role of generals and the extent to which the buck stops with him, he said. “National security professionals need leadership to be able to do their jobs. Generals can’t snap fingers and fix problems.”