President Donald Trump is doing something that his predecessor was incapable of doing – trusting his military to accomplish his strategic objective of completely defeating ISIS. Former President Barack Obama thought his White House knew better than the commanders in the field how to fight a war. Things changed for the better under Trump’s leadership as commander-in-chief. He is calling the shots from a strategic perspective – annihilate ISIS as soon as possible, rather than contain and degrade them slowly as Obama sought to do. Unlike Obama, who thought ISIS was a JV team he could defeat with some tough rhetoric and pinprick airstrikes directed from afar, President Trump has been willing to delegate military decisions to his commanders in the field.
“No longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington, D.C., has to authorize tactical movements,” explained Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired United States Marine Corps general who previously served as the 11th Commander of United States Central Command and was responsible for American military operations in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, and Central Asia during the Obama administration. “I’ll leave that to the generals who know how to do those kind of things. We don’t direct that from here. They know our intent is the foreign fighters do not get out. I leave it to their skill, their cunning, to carry that out.”
Mattis must have known firsthand the frustration of a military commander handcuffed by know-nothing bureaucrats thousands of miles away from the battlefield. The change has already yielded major results on the ground.
Brett H. McGurk, special U.S. envoy to the coalition against ISIS who had performed the same duties during the Obama administration, gave as an example a surprise attack last spring in the Syrian town of Tabqa, which helped clear the way for a crucial battle to retake ISIS’s self-declared capital Raqqa 28 miles away from Tabqa.
“Our military people on the ground saw an opportunity to kind of surprise ISIS with a helicopter, moving them by helicopter, surprise them from behind and seize the airport, the dam and the town,” McGurk said.
Unlike during the Obama era, there is no hesitation today in providing the assistance needed to transport Arab and Kurd fighters to where they were needed to surround and kill the enemy, not simply push the enemy from one place to another. No longer are ISIS forces allowed to withdraw, in return for promising to let civilians go, only live to terrorize another day. A war of attrition has thankfully turned into a war of annihilation.
As Defense Secretary Mattis said during an interview on Face the Nation, “We have already shifted from attrition tactics where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria to annihilation tactics where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to north Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa, we are not going to allow them to do so. We are going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate.”
The difference between the Obama and Trump eras is also illustrated in the larger number and scale of bombings since Donald Trump became president. Last April, U.S. forces dropped the “Mother of all Bombs” or “MOAB,” on an ISIS position in northeast Afghanistan. The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has increased the number of bombs dropped on ISIS by about 50% this year through late May 2017, compared to the same period last year. The following graph illustrates the sharp ramp up since President Trump took office, particularly in Syria where Obama was very reluctant to engage:
The fundamental difference in how Barack Obama and President Trump have responded to the ISIS threat lies in how they understood the threat in the first place. Trump correctly sees ISIS as part of a larger global Islamic jihadist challenge that is a direct danger to the U.S. homeland if not destroyed root and branch. The Obama administration viewed ISIS through the lens of a regional conflict over territory and power that had gotten out of hand because neither the Iraqi or Syrian governments had been sufficiently inclusive.
Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, had posted on the White House blog a ludicrous attempt to distinguish al Qaeda and its spin-off ISIS (which he referred to as ISIL):
“Is ISIL more dangerous than al-Qaeda right now?
“While both are terrorist forces, they have different ambitions. Al-Qaeda’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the west and U.S. homeland. That’s the direct threat that we have taken direct action against for many years. Right now, ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State. So they’re different organizations with different objectives.”
Implicit in Rhodes’ comment was the fallacious assumption of the Obama administration that ISIS would be content with “their own Islamic State” carved out of territory in the Middle East region and that their caliphate ambitions posed no direct threat to the U.S. homeland. The Obama administration saw ISIS as made up of a bunch of disaffected violent extremists who had no real connection to Islam. As recently as this May, Rhodes continued to show his myopia when he tweeted: “What has changed for the better because we have an Administration that now says we are at war with ‘radical Islam’?”
What has changed for the better is that we now have presidential leadership with a clear-eyed vision of who we are fighting and what animates them. President Trump understands that ISIS and al Qaeda both follow the same jihadist ideology, with the same objective of establishing the worldwide supremacy of Islam and submission or death of all infidels. Neither has an interest in participating in any sort of inclusive government. Indeed, they both reject the very idea of a self-governing democracy or compromise with those whom they consider infidels. And the only limiting factors on their continuing expansion are their weaponry, number of recruits and finances. Containment is not an option.
Obama never let go of pre-September 2011 thinking, the same turning of a blind eye when Osama bin Laden had declared war against the United States during the 1990s. President Trump, on the other hand, realizes that the strategic objective of the United States in fighting against ISIS is to save the U.S. homeland from a succession of jihadist attacks directed or inspired by ISIS. Unlike Obama, Trump trusts his generals to get the job done.