“We need different thinking in this country, folks,” Donald Trump told a campaign crowd on Monday in Tampa, home of the U.S. military’s Central Command. The U.S. government and its military generals running the war on ISIS, he said, are “a group of losers.”
Trump has been sharply critical of Pentagon leadership under President Barack Obama. And no operation has taken a bigger rhetorical hit than the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In late October, one week into the largest U.S. military operation in Iraq since 2003, Trump called the Mosul offensive ”a total disaster.” His reasoning: the “months of notice” coalition officials gave the city’s inhabitants and extremists via leaflet drops and TV appearances by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
But it’s Trump’s insistence on killing ISIS quickly that could most vex current Pentagon officials, including the commander of U.S. CENTCOM, Gen. Joseph Votel. Trump has said that he will demand a plan for removing ISIS within 30 days of taking office, and returned to the subject briefly in the final presidential debate in Las Vegas when he said ISIS fighters are spread across 32 countries (a claim PolitiFact declared largely inflated).
Votel, who previously led Special Operations Command and the elite Joint Special Operations Command, has never once said publicly that defeating ISIS can be done quickly. In August, he offered this assessment: “Generally speaking, I do believe our approach, which requires that we work by, with and through the indigenous forces, is working,” he said of the Obama administration’s coalition-centric, small-U.S. footprint approach to eventually winning back territory from ISIS. “That said, challenges do remain and there is much work still to be done to defeat this enemy” and “the threat that they pose trans-regionally.”
“Transregional” is a term the Pentagon has been using recently to describe the threat posed by al-Qaeda, out of which ISIS was born. And it’s not without merit, since fighters from both groups are vying for territory in many of the same countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and elsewhere. Votel worries as well about the group’s efforts to set up, as he called it, a “virtual caliphate” in the cyber domain.
Trump has hinted about how he might want to conduct the war on ISIS, including a suggestion that American troops might form a “ring of security” around ISIS-held oil facilities, then air strikes to kill the fighters with. He has also suggested creating “a number of safe zones, in sections of Syria” so “people can go back and rebuild if they want to.” This action would be financed by “the Gulf states” and supported by as many as 30,000 troops, he said.
Trump has already voiced his dismay and impatience with the Mosul offensive. And that operation is being conducted with remarkably more unity and larger numbers than the U.S.-led drive to isolate the Sunni-dominant city of Raqqa using largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces—a force Votel called the “most capable” against ISIS in Syria.
This raises the question of how Trump will choose (or not) to pursue the Obama administration’s drive on Raqqa, which “is where ISIS plans their external (terrorist) operations,” Votel said recently told CNN.
In the final debate, Trump also lampooned the U.S. effort to train Syrian rebels. “We don't know who the rebels are,” he said. “We're giving them lots of money, lots of everything. We don't know who the rebels are. And when and if—and it's not going to happen, because you have Russia and you have Iran now. But if they ever did overthrow Assad, you might end up with—as bad as Assad is, and he's a bad guy, but you may very well end up with worse than Assad.”
Another question that could change how Votel operates at CENTCOM: Will a Trump administration have the patience with allies that Obama has shown to nations like Saudi Arabia (cooperating with its war in Yemen) or Iran (while negotiating the nuclear deal)?
“Ultimately, at CENTCOM, our intent is to do what is necessary militarily to improve stability and security in the region,” Votel said in August. “Perhaps even more important, we've recognized that significant political challenges will also have to be addressed… I’ve instructed our team at CENTCOM to explore ways that we may be able to work more closely with our interagency and our international partners to support these efforts and to ease the delivery of humanitarian aid.”
No servicemembers Defense One reached out to could speak with any confidence on who might replace Votel and other top-rank generals should Trump decide to clear out the “losers.” But nearly every one—a special operator was the exception—welcomed the president-elect with open arms.
“I think [President Trump] could be beneficial to military members. Maybe we can do that big enema that is needed—crack down on stuff we really need and don't need, and clean ourselves up a little bit,” one officer told Defense One. “People blasted Obama in 2008 saying the country and the military would fall apart, but it didn’t. We got less pay raises, but I don't think that had anything to do with him as it did the rising cost of everything and fighting two wars.”
The bottom line, he said, is that “A leader is not supposed to be the most popular. Leadership is making the hard decisions for the benefit of the country—not a race, or a gender, or a state, but for the country. Our nation needs a good hug right now and I hope he is the person that is willing to take the hard steps to do it.”