The United States is trying to wrap up two major conflicts this year — the war in Afghanistan and the war in Syria against ISIS. At the same time, America forces are still operating globally against threats and to assist allies in defeating terrorist groups. In the second half of January, two U.S. airstrikes in Somalia killed 76 suspected al-Shabaab militants. This appears to point to a crossroads in the U.S. role. While troops may be coming home from major war zones, U.S. involvement in conflicts apparently will shift to focus on precision airstrikes and intelligence gathering.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanProtection of critical military benefit shows bipartisanship can work Senators introducing bill to penalize Pentagon for failed audits Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE said on Jan. 29 that ISIS has lost “99.5 percent plus” of its territory in Syria and Iraq. President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE added on Feb. 1 that ISIS soon would be “destroyed 100 percent,” but he warned, “We will be watching them closely.” This dovetails with comments he made the day after Christmas to troops at al-Asad base in Iraq — that the United States will not be nation-building in Syria, but its forces will “always watch very closely over any potential reformation of ISIS.” To ensure the defeat of ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition launched 645 strikes on ISIS targets in Syria in the last two weeks of January, among the most since August 2014.
As the United States withdraws from Syria, the administration is negotiating with the Taliban to end the U.S. role in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, has been holding talks in Qatar that he says have been “more productive” than in the past. A former ambassador to Afghanistan under President George W. Bush, Khalilzad knows well the challenge. After 18 years, the United States is aiming for eventual troop withdrawal; Trump is adamant that “endless wars” must end.
Critics of the administration point to the U.S. intelligence community’s new Worldwide Threat Assessment as a reason to be pessimistic that these wars will end. The inspector general’s quarterly report at the Department of Defense also is expected to highlight continuing ISIS threats in Iraq and Syria. The map of these threats shows ISIS and other groups, such as al Qaeda, are active across a belt of land stretching from the Sahel in Africa to the Philippines, where ISIS took credit for bombing a church on Jan. 27 that killed 20.
So how does the United States withdraw and yet keep fighting? The answer lies in the concept of “small footprint, long arm.” Having a “long arm” in war-fighting has meant using long-range weapons and tactics, from artillery to air power, or inserting special forces far from home. The “footprint” is the size of the forces involved, the “boots on the ground.”
This essentially is what the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been doing since 9/11. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2017, SOCOM Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas said the United States was operating in more than 80 countries, with 8,000 forces deployed. A year later, the United States was operating in 90 countries, with a $13.6 billion budget that is 10 percent higher than in 2018, but with a relatively small footprint on the ground. Each troop deployed is considered a “force multiplier,” advising and assisting locals to defeat adversaries.
Modern war-fighting has transformed from heavy conventional military operations, with brigades and divisions, to smaller units, drones and the use of technology to track and monitor enemies. For example, a satellite image of battles around the last ISIS enclave of Hajin, Syria, in January showed six U.S. Reaper drones and three Beechcraft surveillance planes. An online community that uses open source tracking software of airplane transponders identified other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft over Syria and northern Iraq.
It appears that U.S. strategy going forward will concentrate on fighting wars using this kind of technology. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned in 2017, at the National Press Club, that wars can’t be won by special forces: “They can do raids, they can train other countries; there’s a lot of other things they can do. Winning a war by themselves is not one of their tasks.”
For now, the Trump administration wants the United States to stop taking the lead and instead play a role that caters to its strength in the air and with precision-guided weapons. Local forces will have to do more of the fighting, from Niger to Somalia.
Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the state of the region after ISIS.