National Security

Trump war strategy takes one-two punch

President Trump’s strategy in Syria and Afghanistan took a one-two punch on Tuesday, first from his own intelligence officials and then from the Senate’s top Republican.

The top intelligence officials offered a contradictory assessment of Trump’s statement that ISIS has been defeated, warning that thousands of the terrorist organization’s fighters remain in Iraq and Syria and that the group is “intent on resurging.”

{mosads}The warning was delivered by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel in a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee and an accompanying report on worldwide threats.

While Trump last month ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and declared the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been “defeated,” intelligence officials warned Tuesday that the group “will exploit any reduction in [counterterrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations.”

Separately on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he will introduce an amendment warning against a “precipitous” withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

In one of his sharpest breaks yet with Trump, McConnell said during a speech on the Senate floor that the measure would “acknowledge the plain fact” that al Qaeda, ISIS and their subsidiaries “pose a serious threat to us here at home.”

Since Trump’s initial announcement in December, administration officials have walked back Trump’s declaration of the defeat of ISIS, saying instead the terrorist group has lost nearly all of its territory.

But Trump has continued to downplay the threat posed by ISIS, saying U.S. forces have “knocked them out.”

The threat assessment on ISIS was just one of the areas where intelligence officials did not align with Trump.

Coats testified that North Korea is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons,” despite Trump’s continued negotiations with Pyongyang.

Coats and Haspel also testified that Tehran continues to abide by the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated under the Obama administration, statements they previously made before Trump withdrew from the deal.

“Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” the report reads.

Lawmakers attending Tuesday’s hearing said they stood by the intelligence leaders’ findings. But they also said they weren’t necessarily surprised by the apparent refutation of the president’s claims.

While other high-ranking members of the Trump administration will make statements in line with the president’s agenda, intelligence officials tend to avoid making political comments. And their assessments will occasionally stand in contrast to the arguments put forward by the White House.

“It’s very clear that they’re politely saying that up there at the White House with the president is kind of a fact-free zone,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

“Obviously the president is commander in chief but it’s not helpful, this difference of opinion,” he added.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) pushed back on the idea that Tuesday’s testimony contradicted Trump.

“The president said that they have dismantled the caliphate, and I think that’s in fact what the witnesses said today,” Burr said. “The president’s ISIS comments have been toward Syria and then numbers in Syria. We were talking about a global ISIS presence today.”

Other lawmakers sitting on the panel noted that this wasn’t the first time the chiefs have butted heads with the administration’s statements.

“What part of that was surprising?” asked Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

“Those folks have been generally — in almost all the presentations — they’ve generally been very truthful,” he continued.

And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said it “wouldn’t be the first time an administration, for policy reasons that are broader than just that assessment, have made decisions.”

Still, Rubio, who has been an outspoken opponent of the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, noted that it was the same assessments “that have led me to most of the policy positions I’ve taken.”

“I think it’s clear to everyone the president overstated the case when he said that ISIS has been defeated,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said.

“They don’t control territory but they’re still a grave danger to the region,” he added.

Defense and intelligence officials have long warned that ISIS would continue to pose a serious threat even after it loses all of its territory and that it would return to its roots as a guerilla insurgency.

But officials have taken care not to directly contradict Trump since he announced the Syria withdrawal last month.

While Coats and Haspel were testifying before the Senate on Tuesday, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon that ISIS has lost “99.5 percent” of its territory.

“Within a couple of weeks it’ll be 100 percent,” he added.

Shanahan also said the withdrawal will be done in a “deliberate, coordinated, disciplined” manner, the latest indication that Trump’s initial desire for a speedy withdrawal is being slowed.

Coats, meanwhile, acknowledged the U.S. has “defeated the caliphate with a couple of little villages” remaining.

Still, he said that Americans “should not underestimate the ability of terrorist groups, particularly ISIS and affiliated groups with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

“ISIS will continue to be a threat to the United States, and we’re going to have to continue to keep our eyes on that … as the realization that this terrorism threat is going to continue for some time,” Coats told the committee.

 

 

Tags Afghanistan Angus King Dan Coats Donald Trump Iraq ISIS Marco Rubio Mark Warner Mitch McConnell Patrick Shanahan Richard Burr Ron Wyden Syria

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