President Trump’s war of annihilation against the Islamic State played out this spring in the Syrian town of Tabqa, a critical prize in the ongoing final march to Raqqa.
Defense Secretary James Mattis announced the annihilation strategy in mid-May, but before that commanders in Iraq and Syria got the go-ahead to fight ISIS, as the Pentagon calls the terrorist army, Trump-style.
Under President Obama, U.S. Army Special Forces assigned to Syrian Democratic Forces needed special approval from Washington for virtually all tactical moves amid the politically complex theater of Americans, Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Syrians.
In Tabqa, where the city, its dam and its airfield were the objectives, the Green Berets decided they needed an airlift. Suddenly minus red tape, Arabs, Kurds and Americans were helicoptering into battle, and they quickly seized territory.
Under Mr. Obama, Islamic State terrorists could at times retreat from towns, immune from airstrikes if they used civilians as cover. The battle for Manbij in August became infamous when the SDF let 200 Islamic State fighters turn in their weapons and escape because they had threatened to kill town residents if they were not allowed to run away.
The new Trump strategy calls for surrounding towns, as opposed to pushing from one end or one side to another, in order to isolate Islamic State fighters and annihilate them.
Brett H. McGurk, special U.S. envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State who performed the same role for Mr. Obama, talked of “the delegations of authority which has made a difference in terms of the speed of execution. I think Tabqa was an example of that.”
“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,” Mr. McGurk later told reporters at the Pentagon.
After Tabqa’s liberation, Mr. McGurk spoke to the city’s mayor, who gave a brief description of the war of annihilation.
“He also said he believes that most of these foreign fighters are now dead,” the diplomat said.
Mr. Mattis said: “No longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington, D.C., has to authorize tactical movements. 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.”
Six months into the Trump presidency, the liberal mainstream media have produced assessments of the new president’s war against the Islamic State and pronounced it the same as Mr. Obama’s.
But Mr. Trump’s defenders point to distinct differences, such as the battle for Tabqa and the surrounding of West Mosul, as well as new leeway given American warriors on the ground.
‘Bomb the hell out of ISIS’
In December, The Washington Times reported on the frustration of Green Berets in Syria as they tried to organize, train and equip Syrian Democratic Forces units on a march toward the Islamic State’s proclaimed capital of Raqqa. The soldiers complained of micromanagement by superiors watching their every move via surveillance aircraft.
“Based on the very high-level approval required to conduct operations, it can be extremely frustrating for the teams,” an officer told The Times. “We just don’t have the latitude we had during our years in Iraq, and that can be frustrating for the teams. The progress over the last year has been slow. Each team may not see it during their rotation, but cumulatively we’ve made significant progress against Daesh while maintaining relationships with Turkey and Jordan. In my many years in Special Forces, I’ve never been involved with a more complex mission.”
Daesh is a disputed acronym based on the terrorist group’s full Arabic name.
That same officer told The Times last week: “The commanders on the ground have a great deal of latitude. Tabqa is a great example: a complex operation developed and executed at the lowest level and enabled from higher.”
Green Berets were able to call in more air assets and change tactics on the run. U.S. Central Command also introduced Marine Corps artillery units that provided precise fire as the SDF moved forward.
“The reduction in micromanagement of tactical level actions by the White House staff during the Obama era, to the delegation of authority to conduct military actions to military professionals by President Trump is a laudatory step in assuring our national security strategy is optimally executed,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula.
Early in his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump made a one-minute radio ad. He spelled out his planned strategy as “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.”
There has indeed been an uptick in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Outside that theater, U.S. Central Command carried out days of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Libya and Yemen. It also dropped the biggest conventional U.S. bomb on a concentration of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.
Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the Iraq-Syria command, issues daily airstrike numbers. It is difficult to compare 2016 strikes to this year’s because battlefield conditions and objectives change.
In February, Mr. Trump’s first full month in office, the coalition conducted 831 airstrikes, compared with 684 in February 2016.
Mr. Deptula, a career fighter pilot, called the Obama bombing campaign too timid.
Of Mr. Trump’s strategy, he said: “There has been an increase in the average number of airstrikes per day since the inauguration. That is most likely attributable to the latter stages of the campaign to dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul and Raqqa.”
What Islamic State hawks are not seeing from the Trump team are grander strategy changes such as safe zones for innocents, no-fly zones to protect them and a coalition occupation force to keep Syrian regime units and Iranian surrogates away from liberated eastern towns.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane is one of Washington’s most astute analysts on the long fight against jihadis.
“There are some differences but certainly no change in strategy, just resources,” Mr. Keane told The Times. “In Syria, which is the ISIS sanctuary, some additional [special operations forces] are in place to assist with the U.S.-led coalition of Syrian Kurds/Arabs plus additional artillery, Apache attack helicopters along with a general loosening up of the rules of engagement.”
He said he believes Mr. Trump’s national security team has rejected an even more aggressive strategy to create a ground force of U.S. and Sunni Arab troops to prevent Iran and its militias from dominating eastern Syria after the elimination of the Islamic State.
War of annihilation
J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman and national security adviser to the Trump presidential campaign, views the changes as more significant. For the first time, he said, a U.S. administration is calling out Qatar, via Persian Gulf allies, for its ties to Sunni terrorism.
“President Trump has taken the war against ISIS to the next level,” Mr. Gordon said. “First, he’s worked with allied forces to surround and physically destroy ISIS fighters in both Iraq and Syria, and second, increased pressure on their finances to include shining a spotlight on Qatar’s support to terror groups. Simultaneously, he’s enacted extreme vetting for numerous countries where it’s near impossible to screen out ISIS operatives and sympathizers.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik commanded troops in Iraq and now analyzes counterterrorism as a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Mr. Dubik said the jury is still out on Mr. Mattis’ war of annihilation, which the former Army soldier views as bringing more combined arms to put more pressure on the Islamic State.
“The battle for Tabqa is, I think, an example of this more intense and sophisticated approach, an approach that is, I think, a departure from the previous administration,” he said. “So far, however, the difference is in degree, not kind.”
He said a war of annihilation does not mean the coalition must kill or capture every Islamic State fighter. It means the strategy must prevent the fighters from reconstituting as terrorists to capture new territory or regain lost ground. This involves not just killing but also putting into place broader actions among allies to deny money, weapons and replacements for the dead.
“I don’t see much evidence that the administration has done any better than the last two at cracking the code for coordinating the transnational, nonmilitary actions necessary for annihilating this kind of enemy,” Mr. Dubik said.
All the while, he said, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are watching.
“They are all making conclusions about whether the U.S. is able to use force to attain its strategic aims,” he said.
Mr. Mattis’ definition of annihilation seemed simpler. The retired four-star Marine Corps general, while commanding troops in Iraq, was known for pushing the battle plan that would kill the most enemies. To him, a dead Islamic State terrorist is no longer a threat to the region or to the West.
“So by taking the time to deconflict, to surround and then attack, we carry out the annihilation campaign so we don’t simply transplant this problem from one location to another,” he said.
Working with Turkey, the Pentagon estimates the flow of Islamic State recruits into Syria has slowed from 1,500 a month to 100 a month.