Sunday 26/05/2019 - 12:52 am

Trump’s first at-bat in the permanent war

By Jed Babbin

2017.04.03 10:42


President Trump, in his first at-bat as commander in chief, is developing and unfolding his war plans at the same time. The small steps he’s taking are appropriate for a president learning the role of military commander. But he is in danger of neglecting his essential role in gaining support for his plans.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump promised to “utterly destroy Islamic State.” He never set a goal for the 16-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Russian intervention in Syria, Afghanistan and Libya is intended to thwart our objectives in all of those places. It’s impossible to ignore the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops in Syria.

There are about 900 U.S. troops in Syria including a Marine artillery unit deployed last month. Another 400 are on the way and yet another 1,000 are reportedly offshore ready to deploy. They don’t have much swinging room.

American, Russian, Syrian, Iranian, Syrian rebel, Kurdish and Turkish forces in Syria operate with conflicting objectives. Russian, Syrian, Iranian forces fight only to maintain Bashar Assad’s regime, not battle Islamic State. Their opponent is the Syrian rebel force we support. Russia, having established permanent strategic bases in Syria (the Tartus naval base and the Hmeimim air base), is tightening its grasp in the Middle East. Turkish forces, having established control of a northern corner of Syria, have stopped advancing.

U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft are operating in Syria as well. Their operations are complicated by having to “de-conflict” their flights so that they don’t literally run into Syrian, Russian (and probably Iranian) aircraft attacking the rebels. This isn’t the equivalent of a “no-fly” zone enforced against us, but Russian control over big chunks of Syrian airspace is undeniable.

It’s not at all clear how Mr. Trump can defeat Islamic State in Syria unless he also defeats them in Iraq and Libya where they are also very strong. Russia is interfering in Libya by backing a Libyan general who opposes the weak Libyan government.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reportedly in the city of Mosul, which Iraqi troops are trying to seize. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi predicted about 10 days ago that Islamic State would be defeated in a matter of weeks. Mr. Trump has ordered two companies of U.S. troops to Mosul to “advise and assist” Iraqi forces in their fight to take the city from Islamic State. We have learned, in 14 years of war in Iraq, not to put too much faith in Iraqi predictions or forces. The same is true for the Afghani forces and the Kabul government.

President Obama was content with the current stalemate in Afghanistan, seeking only to avoid the blame for losing that part of the war. In 2014, U.S. and NATO troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan’s Helmand province. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Taliban retook Helmand very quickly. About two weeks before President Trump was inaugurated, the Obama administration announced that 300 Marines were being deployed to Helmand to “train and advise” Afghani forces to help them retake the province from the Taliban.

There are about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan among a total 13,300 NATO troops there. In February Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would welcome thousands of more troops. But to do what and for how long?

The Taliban may be contained as long as our troops are present, but — as Helmand province proved redundantly — will move back in quickly whenever we leave. Here again, the president should explain to the public what our goal is in Afghanistan.

One of Gen. Nicholson’s remarks was, unfortunately, ignored. He said that Russia is increasingly involved, supporting the Taliban against U.S. and NATO efforts. Last week Central Command boss Gen. Joseph Votel said that the Russians are supplying the Taliban with arms to fight our forces and those of the Kabul government.

How does Mr. Trump plan to deal with Russian interference in Syria and Afghanistan? He needs to figure this out and tell the American public.

America, we are frequently told by the Democratic/media axis, is “war weary.” Many Americans — the vast majority of whom aren’t in the military — only seem to care when the left tells them to. Those who shoulder the burdens of the fight — the warriors and their families — want to win the war and finally be done with it. After nearly 16 years, they have every right to feel that way. American’s aren’t “war weary.” But they are sick and tired of living in a state of permanent war that never results in an American victory.

Mr. Trump’s thinking must go farther than setting immediate goals. What does it mean to defeat Islamic State or the Taliban? He needs to determine the end product, i.e., what do we want Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to look like when we’re done?

It’s too early in Mr. Trump’s presidency to praise or condemn his war plans. Though he is owed a chance to do what’s necessary, he needs to explain to us — soon what his goals are and how they will result in a successful end to this seemingly-permanent war.

• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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