During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump bragged about his “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State, and while he vowed to only unveil his plan if elected president, he did let slip at least one component of this plan: That he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. So far, just over two months into his presidency, it seems clear that, unsurprisingly to most, that his secret plan is little more than trying to bomb the shit out of ISIS and al Qaeda.
So what does a strategy of bombing the shit out of ISIS look like in practice? First, it starts by rolling back legal safeguards on “United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.” Next, it ramps up the intensity of air sorties, including a huge increase in the number of air strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Then, it rolls back rules intended to limit accidentally killing civilians by applying war-zone targeting rules in Somalia.
It’s far too early to know if bombing the shit out of ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and other assorted groups is paying off. What we do know is that large numbers of civilians are being killed by US air strikes, likely including approximately 50 people in a Syrian mosque, more than 30 people sheltering in a Syrian school, and well over 100 people in Mosul. We also know that ISIS has adapted to the increased tempo of US airstrikes by herding civilians into buildings and then conducting military operations out of those buildings so as to attract a US airstrike, hoping that rising civilian casualties will pressure the US to pare back its air operations.
It’s also too early to say whether the change in sortie rate and the loosening of targeting rules is the cause of the recent civilian deaths. But, what can be said is that, so far, there seems to be little signs of a larger strategy for defeating ISIS, al Qaeda, et. al, other than by bombing the shit out of them.
Bombing is a tool, not a strategy. It is one way that you apply force against an enemy, but it cannot, does not, and will not, on its own, produce victory. Robert Pape convincingly demonstrated this in his Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. In addition to air power, one needs a strategy, backed by the proper mix of military assets and other non-military tools. After all, as Clausewitz wrote, “war is politics by other means.” But it is still politics, meant to achieve political ends, and in all but the rarest of cases, depends on political solutions.
So far, there is little evidence that Trump has any such strategy. While the move to pass authorization for certain military operations from the hands of the president into the in-theater generals may have motivated by a desire to improve efficiency and take better advantage of real-time intelligence, the timing (coming on the heels of the SEAL raid into Yemen that resulted in the death of one US serviceman and was of questionable value, a raid that was authorized by President Trump over dinner) suggests that it also might have resulted from Trump’s discomfort, inexperience, and unwillingness to make such difficult decisions.
Meanwhile, all this is taking place while the Trump Administration proposes gutting the State Department and USAID and amid reports that the Secretary of State is barely present at his job and doesn’t like to speak to his employees or even look them in the eye. While these things have no direct impact on the war against ISIS and al Qaeda, they do suggest that the administration has little interest in a strategy that has any other component than bombing the shit out of America’s enemies.
A serious strategy to defeat ISIS and al Qaeda would necessarily be as much, if not more, diplomatic and economic than military. It would explicitly acknowledge that civilian casualties, while occasionally unavoidable, are counterproductive and play right into the hands of ISIS. It would recognize that while poverty is not a primary cause of why people become terrorists or insurgents, perceived relative levels of socio-economic disparity, deep-seated political grievances and lack of political access can create fertile ground for extremism. Any plan to truly defeat radical Islamist groups would have to address the economic and political conditions in the Arab and Muslim world, but the US agencies that do just that are the ones that President Trump seems to have little interest in funding, let alone staffing.
It should come as no surprise that Trump’s secret plan to defeat ISIS amounts to nothing more than loosing the dogs of war. And while James Mattis is as fine and moral a soldier as they come and while I have every confidence in his service as Secretary of Defense, it is still true that he is primarily a solider, not a diplomat or politician. Trump’s foreign policy is being run almost entirely by retired and active generals and people who have no serious understanding or experience in foreign policy or military operations. That means there is likely little to no consideration to the political dimensions of the war against ISIS or, at best, that such dimensions are considered after the military dimensions. And that is no way to win.