President Donald Trump’s pressure on the military to “demolish and destroy” the Islamic State is raising anxiety inside the Pentagon that the United States could end up in another open-ended ground war, according to current and former military officials.
The U.S. has quietly sent hundreds of additional troops to Iraq and Syria since Trump took office, and is considering dispatching thousands more to counter ISIS, fight militants in Yemen and stem a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. But the deliberations are testing Trump’s promise to steer clear of foreign entanglements, and has his military commanders questioning whether they can maintain their meticulously drawn line between supporting local forces and leading the fight.
The escalating risk of U.S. casualties is shadowing the Pentagon’s internal strategy sessions, the officials said in interviews. Trump’s demand for a more aggressive strategy also raises concerns among commanders about whether they can accomplish the mission without turning U.S. troops into a substitute for local fighters, which until now have depended only on U.S. military advisers, special operations forces and air strikes.
“Some call this accelerating the campaign; some call it mission creep,” said one military officer involved in the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Some lawmakers say the U.S. military role in the region is steadily expanding with little if any debate about the implications.
“What we see happening is the classic definition of mission creep,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and leading anti-war voice on Capitol Hill. “A few hundred here, a couple hundred there, a few more hundred here. You see our military footprint expanding ever more.”
Trump has straddled the issue — speaking out about the urgent need to defeat ISIS and criticizing former President Barack Obama’s “leading from behind strategy,” but also expressing wariness about large-scale military involvement in the Middle East.
On Thursday, Trump laid out plans for a military buildup in his first budget request, while asking Congress for $30 billion in extra funds for the military this year. That would include money to “accelerate the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” he wrote in his message to Congress.
The acceleration is already underway.
In recent weeks the Pentagon, at the request of Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top commander in Baghdad, has quietly inserted hundreds of conventional troops into Syria to aid preparations to retake Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
A Marine artillery unit, including about 200 personnel, is on the outskirts of Raqqa to help tighten the noose around the group’s headquarters — an effort being spearheaded by a coalition of Syrian Arab, Kurdish and Christian forces, collectively known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. About 100 Army Rangers are helping provide security in the recently liberated city of Manbij in northern Syria.
They join at least 500 American troops already inside Syria and more than 5,000 American military advisers, trainers and attack helicopter crews in Iraq, where Iraqi forces are waging an intense fight to retake the northern city of Mosul.
The moves mark an escalation in the three-year-old campaign to dislodge the Islamic State from large swaths of its territory.
The Pentagon is also considering sending several thousands of additional troops to Kuwait as what one military official with direct knowledge described as a “reserve” force for the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria. And a stepped-up U.S. bombing campaign in recent weeks against al Qaeda in Yemen is raising further questions about deeper involvement in that country’s civil war, while the commander in Afghanistan recently telegraphed that he will seek more forces — on top of 8,400 already there — to beat back a Taliban resurgence.
But military spokespeople insist that the U.S. role will remain one of advising and assisting local forces — and that American ground forces will be inserted directly into the fight only if absolutely necessary.
“Our No. 1 goal for our force is to enable our partner forces to liberate their lands,” Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S. command in Baghdad, told reporters on Wednesday. He added, “Our No. 2 role is to make sure that we protect our own force as they execute that mission.”
But he said the Pentagon is not prepared to reveal much detail about the numbers, locations or missions of troops already there or others that may be on the way — in what some view as a departure from tradition.
“We are not going to do it as a play-by-play every day,” Dorrian said, adding that being too transparent about the moves would pose additional risks because the U.S. troops are in “isolated conditions” and small formations.
Yet the risks inherent in involving more troops in the fight — especially a Syrian civil war with a host of competing sides — is a primary consideration in current Pentagon planning, according to multiple officials with direct knowledge.
The additional U.S. troops under consideration “are there to lend specific technical capabilities,” said one military official who has seen the options to accelerate the campaign, which were delivered to the White House earlier this month. Those include helping local allies with communications, logistics and intelligence, but also “fire support,” like the newly deployed Marine artillery unit.
The challenge is to ensure that U.S. troops do not become a substitute for the local forces on the ground that are fighting ISIS, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “I don’t foresee that changing even with more cowbell. You are not going to see rifle companies doing rifle company stuff.”
But that could prove difficult given the unpredictable situation on the ground, including multiple warring factions with different agendas.
To fight ISIS, the United States is leading a coalition of nations in supporting Iraqi security forces and troops from the Kurdish area of northern Iraq in the battle for Mosul. In Syria, in addition to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S. is also working with the People’s Protection Units, a militia that is a mix of Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds and in conflict with neighboring Turkey, a NATO ally.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are fighting some of the United States’ allies, is calling the American forces in the country “invaders.”
Further complicating the situation is the presence of Russian forces, who are aiding the Assad government — but some of whom are also operating along with the U.S. Army Rangers in Manbij.
Dorrian acknowledged that avoiding a confrontation with Moscow is a major worry. “It is a concern of ours. It is quite clear it is a concern of theirs,” he said.
Still, influential voices in Washington are calling for a greater U.S. military commitment. The “U.S. must act quickly” and “seize and secure a base of operations in southeastern Syria in order to expand American freedom of action in the region,” said a report issued Wednesday by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, hawkish think tanks that have advised U.S. military commanders in the region.
“The goal is to help form a new Syrian Sunni Arab partner,” the report said, adding that “U.S actions must set the conditions necessary to prevent the reconstitution of ISIS and al Qaeda and to resettle refugees eventually.”
The report effectively calls on Trump to take ownership of the war against ISIS. For now, though, Trump is simply “supersizing the Obama strategy,” said one of the report’s main authors, Frederick Kagan.
“We have very little leverage on the ground and probably a limited ability to understand what is going on if we are not there,” Kagan said in an interview. “If we are serious about this we must have some presence.”
He similarly argued that additional American troops are needed in Afghanistan, where the top U.S. commander, Gen. John Nicholson, told Congress last month that “we have a shortfall of a few thousand.”
“It is not a stalemate; we are losing,” Kagan said. “How do we help the Afghans to stop losing?”
But current and former military officials said debate rages among leaders in the Pentagon and commanders in the field about what constitutes too much U.S. involvement, especially in Syria.
“The fundamental question is this: How do you lead the fight without leading?” asked retired Army Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, who was the top U.S. officer in Baghdad until 2015 and still advises the Pentagon.
“We made the decision long ago in Iraq while I was there that this is not our fight,” added Bednarek, who witnessed ISIS taking control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014. “It is a fine line. How do we get as close to the front as we can to bolster up our coalition partners without leading as we help assist, advise and support them in their effort?”
By: Bryan Bender