Trump's War on Terror
In fact, the Trump administration has escalated military operations in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In Yemen, for example, the United States has ramped up its air campaign against Al Qaeda targets, dropping forty strikes over the course of five days in March—more than the Obama administration’s annual total for the past two years. The nonprofit monitoring group Airwars reports that civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq due to coalition air strikes have also increased sharply under Trump, with over 2,200 deaths estimated during his first five and a half months in office. In addition to intensifying air strikes, the White House has increased the number of troops deployed on the ground, particularly in Iraq and Syria. In the operation to retake Mosul, U.S. military advisers cooperated with Iraqi forces in a much “closer and deeper” manner than permitted under the Obama administration. Likewise, in Syria, the United States sent a team of Army Rangers, as well as a Marine artillery unit, to support efforts to liberate Raqqa from the so-called Islamic State.
At the same time, Trump has initiated a policy review aimed at rolling back Obama-era constraints on air strikes and commando raids outside of designated battle zones. Trump has already approved a Pentagon request to declare parts of Yemen and Somalia areas of active hostilities, in which looser-civilian protection rules apply. The administration has also decided to delegate greater operational authority back to the Pentagon and the CIA without requiring high-level interagency sign-off. In Yemen, these changes enabled the controversial ground raid on an Al Qaeda compound that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL as well as a dozen or more civilians. There has also been a surge of recent reports about friendly fire and civilian deaths from coalition air strikes, raising additional troubling questions about the effect of the rules changes.
The Trump administration’s budget request also signals a clear prioritization for military counterterrorism tools. It calls for unprecedented cuts in foreign aid and slashes the U.S. State Department’s budget by almost a third—while increasing defense spending by 10 percent. The administration has also pushed for significant reductions in UN funding, including for peacekeeping operations and UN development work. These proposed cuts suggest that the Trump administration does not view diplomacy and development efforts as key components of its counterterrorism strategy.
Lastly, Trump appears willing to overlook human-rights concerns associated with its counterterrorism partners in favor of assertive military action. In early March, the State Department approved resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia that had been blocked by President Obama due to concerns that Saudi strikes in Yemen were causing widespread civilian casualties. Likewise, the State Department approved $3.8 billion in arms sales to Bahrain in September—including F-16 fighter jets—despite the Bahraini government’s ongoing crackdown against the country’s Shia population. The Trump administration has also sold ground-attack aircraft to Nigeria, despite widespread security-force abuses there, including the mistaken bombing of an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp in January by the Nigerian Air Force that left over one hundred civilians dead. Finally, Trump has invited leaders like Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, invitations that President Obama refused to give because of grave human-rights concerns.
The Trump administration’s early counterterrorism moves may not yet constitute a dramatic break with previous strategy. However, they highlight a real risk that important lessons learned over the past eight years will be discarded and costly mistakes repeated. It is therefore instructive to take a closer look at key counterterrorism choices faced by President Obama and the internal debates that unfolded.
In the Obama administration, four counterterrorism decisions stand out: whether to move away from large-scale military interventions to more targeted operations; how to balance an aggressive counterterrorism campaign with appropriate civilian protection; whether to strategically partner with countries with unsavory democracy and human-rights records; and balancing a light-footprint counterterrorism approach with longer-term commitments to democracy, governance and development.
PRESIDENT OBAMA came into office intent on moving the United States off a “permanent war footing.” He was skeptical that large-scale counterinsurgency missions were the right strategy to defeat terrorist threats. Obama’s team considered existing counterinsurgency doctrine unwieldy, risky and resource-intensive. His advisers were unconvinced that it would bring successful outcomes absent a massive investment spanning multiple decades. This stance also reflected Obama’s worldview that terrorism did not represent an existential threat to the United States equivalent to multigenerational challenges like climate change.
Obama therefore proposed moving toward a light-footprint approach that emphasized disrupting terrorist networks via the use of sophisticated weaponry (drones and laser-guided missiles), supported through an expanded use of special-operations forces and partnerships with host-country militaries. Missions would be conducted wherever terrorist networks were active—both in areas of active hostilities (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan) and beyond conventional war zones (e.g., Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya).