The Trump Doctrine and Syria: “I, And By Extension The US, Will Be Treated Fairly Or Else” Runs Into The Ambiguity Of A Wicked National Security Problem

The President appears to have decided that the US needs to leave Syria as soon as possible. This decision caught his national security and foreign policy team flatfooted. It really isn’t a change in US policy as I’m not sure anyone could actually articulate this administration’s policy in regard to Syria. When the President gave his campaign speech on foreign and national security policy in 2016, I wrote that he had articulated the Trump Doctrine, which is: “America will be treated fairly or else…”.

The President’s meandering remarks in his April 2016 speech touched on a number of his long standing national security and foreign policy beliefs: America’s allies are taking advantage of our treaty and other obligations in the national security space; America’s allies and peer competitors are ripping the US off through our trade agreements; the US should go it alone if it can’t renegotiate better deals; and only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly – or else. That only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly, whether in national security arrangements or global trade, was simply an extension of one of the major, if not the major theme of his campaign: Donald Trump would be treated fairly or else and only Donald Trump could guarantee that Americans, especially the forgotten men and women as he phrased it, would be treated fairly or else.

That the US will be treated fairly or else, and that only a President Trump could guarantee that happening became the central, unifying them of his national security and foreign policy approach was actually a stroke of strategic communication genius. A significant amount of the President’s initial strategic communication approach was through tying his primary opponents, the Republican National Committee, and the broadcast and cable news networks in knots about treating him fairly. This included trying to get Megyn Kelly removed from debate moderation after he felt she treated him badly, as well as actually dropping out of a GOP primary debate on Fox News and holding a competing charity event for veterans because he did not like that Fox wouldn’t comply with his demands. And if they failed to do so he’d deal with them harshly. Then candidate Trump threatened his fellow primary opponents and the RNC by making it clear that if he didn’t feel he was being treated fairly by them, then the or else would be his running as an independent candidate, thereby splitting the Republican vote for president, and handing the election to the then presumed Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton.

By making this the dominant theme of his national security and foreign policy approach, he was able to make a singular through line for his campaign – “I, Donald Trump, will be treated fairly or else by the GOP, the RNC, and the news media; only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that you the forgotten men and women of America are treated fairly in regards to both domestic politics and foreign policy; and only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that the US will be treated fairly or else there will be serious and severe repercussions for the GOP, the RNC, the news media, elected and appointed officials, and America’s allies, partners, and peer competitors”. Here was the simple through line to connect Make America Great Again both domestically and internationally by placing America first. It is also the essence of the real Trump Doctrine: President Trump and by extension the forgotten men and women of America, as well as America itself, will be treated fairly or else.

The President, and his preferences as enumerated in the Trump Doctrine, are now in conflict with the reality of the wicked problem that is the Syrian Civil War and the US led coalition fight against ISIS.

The Washington Post reports that:

Trump’s words, both in public and private, describe a view that wars should be brutal and swift, waged with overwhelming firepower and, in some cases, with little regard for civilian casualties. Victory over America’s enemies for the president is often a matter of bombing “the s— out of them,” as he said on the campaign trail.

For America’s generals, more than 17 years of combat have served as a lesson in the limits of overwhelming force to end wars fueled by sectarian feuds, unreliable allies and persistent government corruption. “Victory is sort [of] an elusive concept in that part of the world,” said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who led troops over five tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Anyone who goes in and tries to achieve a decisive victory is going to come away disappointed.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis echoed that point in late November when he outlined an expanded role for U.S. forces in preventing the return of the Islamic State or a group like it in Syria. “You need to do something about this mess now,” he told reporters. “Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say, ‘Good luck on the rest of it.’ ”

His remarks reflected a broader Pentagon consensus: In the absence of a clear outcome, winning for much of the U.S. military’s top brass has come to be synonymous with staying put. These days, senior officers talk about “infinite war.”

“It’s not losing,” explained Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes in a speech earlier this year. “It’s staying in the game and . . . pursuing your objectives.”

The Army recently rewrote its primary warfighting doctrine to account for the long stretch of fighting without victory since 9/11. “The win was too absolute,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy of the old document. “We concluded winning is more of a continuum.”

LTG Lundy is the Commanding General of the US Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) at FT Leavenworth. As the CAC Commander he oversees doctrine for the US Army. Unfortunately US Army doctrine is pretty silent on what winning or victory means. So is joint doctrine. I spent all morning going through the DOD Dictionary, Joint Publication 3-0/Joint Operations, TRADOC Pamphlet (PAM) 525-3-6/The US Army Functional Concept for Movement and Maneuver, TRADOC Pamphlet (PAM) 525-3-1/The US Army Operational Concept: Win in a Complex World, and the 2015 National Military Strategy in an attempt to find a definition of win, winning, and/or victory. The only two documents that included a definition, or something close, where in the endnotes of PAM 525-3-1/The US Army Operational Concept: Win in a Complex World and in the body of the previous administration’s National Military Strategy.

PAM 525-3-1 defines win in endnote 2 as:

The dictionary defines “win” as: to be successful or victorious in (a contest or conflict). Winning in this concept is meeting the policy objectives of the Commander in Chief. It refers to more than simply defeating threat forces; it means meeting national goals and objectives that are unique for each operation. The joint commander must define success for each operation (or campaign) based upon the national goals and objectives, which may change, based on conditions during the operation

The 2015 National Military Strategy defines win as:

We are prepared to project power across all domains to stop aggression and win our Nation’s wars by decisively defeating adversaries.

The President’s senior military and national security advisors don’t have much to work with in trying to help the President, or any president, define successful termination of hostilities, especially for the ambiguous low intensity, irregular, asymmetric, and unconventional wars that the US has been involved in over the past seventeen years or so. We’re not talking about an interstate war, with two or more state combatants fighting in identifiable uniforms, where victory is achieved when one side in the conflict has either been rendered incapable of continuing to fight or has made the decision that it cannot endure any more pain as a result of a continuation of hostilities. Whether the US and its allies ever participate in that type of war again is an interesting question that is discussed in military and civilian classrooms, as well as in other forums, but it is not the reality we are in and expect to be in any time soon.

This ambiguity regarding what successful combat operations, let alone victory, looks like in the early 21st Century Operating Environment (OE), and the US military’s acceptance of it, is running head first into the President’s preferences, specifically the Trump Doctrine. The President has made it clear he wants the US out as soon as we finish reducing ISIS’s physical foot print. And he wants the Saudis and the Gulf states to pay for reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in the US led Coalition liberated areas within Syria.

Unfortunately, ISIS’s actual center of gravity isn’t the amount of physical terrain it holds. Rather, it is its extreme theology and doctrine of tawheed – the radical unity of the Deity. The US, its coalition partners and allies, including the Syrian Kurdish militias we are training, equipping, and assisting in our by, with, and through strategy against ISIS, aren’t really fighting for terrain. Or to kill or capture as many ISIS fighters and officials and supporters as possible. What they are really fighting is ISIS’s theology and doctrine. This is the strategic target. Trying to decisively measure success in combatting the spread and acceptance of ideas is very, very difficult. As is killing them. It is very hard to stop the signal. This creates a very unpleasant reality: the inability to create actual strategic measures of effectiveness in the fight against ISIS, which is really the fight against ISIS’s doctrine.

Finally, simply taking our personnel and equipment and going home once the physical caliphate has been reduced is only going to help reset the conditions for either ISIS to make a comeback or for something new and likely equally dangerous to rise from its ashes. Defeating ISIS means defeating the conditions that led to its creation – the economic despair, the social inequality, the despotic rule of the Assads, the sectarian divisions – which can only be done through reconciliation and reconstruction. There isn’t a lot of room in here for the US to be treated well in exchange for doing this. It is largely thankless. It is not a mission to achieve decisive victory on the battlefield. These operations are much more similar to the Marshall Plan, which is how we secured the peace in Europe after World War II. It is a longer term, ambiguous mission to work by, with, and through our local partners to manage and mitigate significant social, political, economic, and religious problems and disputes in an attempt to prevent ISIS’s reemergence or the emergence of something even worse. Failure to do so will simply see the US and its Coalition allies and partners back in the Levant once again conducting kinetic operations as refugees stream out of a region that becomes more unstable leading to more loss of life on all sides. The US’s actions in Iraq from 2003 through 2011 helped to set the conditions for the rise of ISIS. Taking responsibility for that reality and working by, with, and through our local partners in Syria and Iraq to manage and mitigate it is a moral responsibility. It is not, however, a matter of being treated fairly or an opportunity for turning a profit.

Open thread.

Conflicting Reports from Kirkuk

I’ve been covering the potential for an Iraqi Civil War between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds for Kirkuk and its surrounding areas since before the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum in September. Tonight we’re getting conflicting reports out of Kirkuk about what is actually going on.

From the Government of Iraq:

There have been reports of US led coalition aircraft over Kirkuk:

And that attacks have begun despite PM Ibadi’s orders:

From al Jazeera (emphasis mine):

Iraqi security forces have launched a “major operation” in the Kurdish-held region of Kirkuk to take control of a strategic military base and oil fields, according to Kurdish and Iraqi officials.

The aim of the advance early on Monday was taking control of the Kurdish-controlled K1 airbase, west of Kirkuk, Lieutenant Colonel Salah el-Kinani, of the Iraqi army’s 9th armoured division, told Reuters news agency.

Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) PresidentMasoud Barzani, also said on Twitter that Peshmerga forces had been ordered “not to initiate any war, but if any advancing militia starts shooting”, then they had the “green light to use every power” to respond.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Erbil, said Kurdish forces in and around Kirkuk “have vowed to defend it to the last man”. He added that the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk has reportedly called residents to arms, “saying anybody with a weapon should take it up and defend the city”.

It seems as if all diplomatic efforts have failed,” said Stratford, calling the push a “very worrying” development.

At this point it is unclear what exactly is going on. While the reports of actual fighting are scattered and only partially confirmed, there are two armed forces moving into close proximity of each other. And those two forces have very different objectives. Cooler heads may yet prevail, but it won’t take much for this to get really ugly really quickly.

Here’s a live stream from Kirkuk:

The US Surge in Iraq and Other Thoughts on Counterinsurgency

In John’s post earlier today Jim, Foolish Literalist asked a question regarding the US Surge in Iraq, specifically whether if it wasn’t just the US paying off the Sunnis in Anbar. As someone who was assigned as the cultural advisor for a brigade combat team that was part of the Surge in 2008 (the second and final rotation of Surge brigades), I had a front row seat to what the Surge was and was not about. Jim is correct, but…

The US Surge in Iraq had the following components:

  1. A reversal in policy towards the Sunni tribes in Anbar that allowed a change in theater strategy so that US commanders could engage with the Sunni, and eventually some Shi’a, tribes involved in the Awakenings (Sawha).
  2. These engagements would leverage the Sawha and the tribes to create the Sons of Iraq program, where we paid Iraqis to serve as local security forces that were networked throughout each operational environment (OE).
  3. We Surged brigade combat teams (BCTs) into the city of Baghdad, as well as the agricultural areas surrounding the city of Baghdad in order to stop anti-Iraqi Government forces (al Qaeda/al Qaeda in Iraq, Jesh al Mehdi, etc). These are called qadas – the BCT I was assigned to was assigned first to Madai’an Qada, which was south and east of Baghdad and, by late 2008, also to Mahmudiya Qada, which is south and west of Baghdad.
  4. The Surged BCTs within the city of Baghdad were intended to restore order and normalcy after the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad in 2005 and 2006. The reality is that US forces in Baghdad did not so much as pacify the violence and stop the cleansing as stepped in after the cleansing had occurred, consolidated the Iraqi clearing into US forces holding. By doing so we basically blessed off on the results of the inter-sectarian cleansing and made it an irreversible fact on the ground and the de facto reality to this day in Baghdad. The Surged BCTs in the qadas were there to keep anti-Iraqi government forces from entering Baghdad to cause trouble.
  5. By 2008, as the first group of five surge BCTs was preparing to rotate home, and their replacements to rotate in, we began to more fully transition to working with the Iraqis to rebuild. Using counterinsurgency terminology we were moving from clearing and holding to holding and building.
  6. All of this was supposed to be done in a by, with, and through manner. Basically working with our Iraqi military, law enforcement, intelligence, governmental, community, and business partners. (This has worked far better in the fight against ISIS than it ever did prior to 2010. Some of this has to do with the Iraqis really wanting help this time, some of it is we’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years.)

That is pretty much the reality of the Surge. But there’s a few additional caveats I want to make. The first is that we were not really doing counterinsurgency (COIN). Despite all the ink spilled and digits digitized between the COINTras and the COINDinistas from 2007 on, we were not doing COIN in Iraq! What we were doing was adapting concepts from FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency. With the exception of Special Forces and some personnel in joint, multinational patrol bases, US forces in Iraq were not living among the host country population. Sure, we took the real estate we thought made tactical sense, fortified it, built bases on it – from patrol bases (PBs) to combat outposts (COPs) to forward operating bases (FOBs) to camps, and then we would roll off them for missions and return to them to reside. This is not what FM 3-24 means by living among/with the host country populace. The Iraqis could not enter one of our bases without permission, without being screened.

We drove from place to place in heavily fortified vehicles because of the IED threat, dismounted armed and armored, and proceeded to do whatever business we had to do. I’m almost 100% convinced that the first patrol that I and two of my teammates went on through Jisr Diyala’s market in Spring 2008 is etched in the local memories as two security contractors (me and one of my teammates) and an Army patrol escorting a US senator or congressperson through the market (we still tease him about it 9 years later – we love you Larry!). The patrol leader in charge of our security, and properly wary of the bad guys looking to exploit our newness in theater and having improper knowledge, kept us moving through, which partially negated why I wanted to tour the market – to get an idea of how well stocked it was, where the goods were coming from, and who and how many locals were in the market. Technically we were following GEN Petreaus’s oft stated concept, adapted from MG Buford’s own cavalry directives during the Civil War, to move mounted, work dismounted. But it was only a technicality.

Finally, in regard to the US Surge in Iraq, the closest we got to actually doing counterinsurgency was trying to work by, with, and through the Iraqis. This covered everything from training Iraqi security forces to overseeing the Sons of Iraq programs to working with local leaders, elected and traditional tribal and religious leadership. Unfortunately, regardless of all the tactical successes from 2007 through 2009 we had no strategic success. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that a hallmark of a good COIN strategy, working by, with, and through the local population is that while you are working by with and through at the tactical (local) level you also have to do so at the theater strategic (national) level. The idea being that as you’re tactically building with the host country population you then pull that layer up to tether it to national government and attach the two. In Iraq, even when there was an effort to do this, the connection points always missed. This was the result of failures of the national command authority (Bush 43 Administration) in DC and their strategic priority of elections and a SOFA agreement, instead of reconciling the various Iraqi societal elements with each other, to their government, and their government to them. It also resulted from not listening to the Iraqis. Or listening, but not hearing. One of the things my teammates and I discovered after taking five months and doing in depth interviews with sheikhs, imams, and other local leaders, as well as more impromptu engagements with internally displaced Iraqis,* is that the Iraqis still had scores to settle with each other. This was also clear if one paid attention to the news reporting from Anbar and of officials from Maliki’s government between 2006 and 2009. The Iraqis were telling us that inter-sectarian violence was coming once we left. And when we did they proved that they weren’t just being hyperbolic.

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6 April 1917 and 6 April 2017

As others have remarked, today is the 100th anniversary of the US’s entry into World War I. I recently began reading Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished. Gerwarth’s book focuses on how and why WW I never really ended, especially for those on the losing end of the war. Which led to almost 2 decades of civil wars, ethnic cleansing, revolutions, and acts of what we would now call terrorism. These events set the conditions for the rise of fascism, its racist offshoot of NAZIsm, and the spread of Bolshevism contributing to WW II.

I came across a reference to Gerwarth’s book in a post by Josh Marshall. Marshall’s referencing of The Vanquished spoke to me as I had just begun thinking through a report I’m working on in regard to how to set the conditions in Iraq and Syria to win the peace, not just the war, against ISIL. The President’s change of position in regard to Assad, including tonight’s limited strike on a Syrian military airfield, makes thinking of such things even more important.

Marshall highlighted one passage from Gerwarth’s book:

“Nazi Germany and its overtly exterminationist imperial project of the later 1930s and and early 1940s owed much to the logic of ethnic conflict and irredentism created by the Great War and the redrawing of borders in 1918-19.”


Marshall applied Gerwarth’s analysis to make this important point:

Cataclysmic and sustained violence is brutalizing and traumatizing to whole societies as much as it is to individuals. The victorious states at least had victory to justify what had happened. The defeated states not only lacked ‘victory’; the end of the conflict saw something approaching complete societal collapse. There was the collapse of states, recurrent revolutions, often followed by reaction and new rounds of violence. More than anything else there was a search to find some way to justify or create some value to justify the scale of loss. After a brief window of time where leaders tried to create democracies out of the collapsed states and thus become ‘victors’ against destroyed autocracies, the two most obvious channels were to build up cults of revenge or to strive to create new, ethnically pure states. In many cases, the two drives were combined.

One persistent theme of this story was that each ‘ethnicity’ had a state somewhere or was trying to create one that would vindicate and protect it and brutalize those communities which stood in the way of creating ethnically homogenous states. So Magyars were the brutalizers in one place and the brutalized in another – the same could be said for virtually every national group, albeit with the groups with new states generally having the whip hand. This story is most discussed in the arc of German history but Gerwarth places it in a broader, pan-European (at least all-East and Central European) context.

What connects WW I and today is that the US and its allies at the time failed to properly secure the peace at the end of WW I. The real strategic challenge facing the US led Coalition in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as the actions of the Assad government, is not how to conduct the fight. We are very good at this. With a lot of hard won knowledge accumulated over the past sixteen years. Rather the real strategic challenge is how do we, working by, with, and through our local partners set the conditions, as part of these campaigns, to win the peace and ensure that the people of Iraq and Syria post ISIL and of Syria post civil war have the opportunity and security to move forward in a peaceful manner. Rather than devolving once again into sectarian violence and/or civil war.

One of the most difficult pieces of the Syrian problem set is that no one in Syria on the ground, or among the exile Syrian groups involved with the Syrian Civil War, can articulate what happens after the Civil War ends. There is nothing even close to a consensus on who controls what. There is nothing even close to a consensus on who would replace Assad if he should go. There is nothing even close to a consensus on what to do if Assad doesn’t go. There is nothing even close to a consensus as to who gets to consider themselves Syrian or what that will even mean post Civil War. And there is almost no discussion about the on the ground reality that this is not simply Russian and Iranian backed Assad and the Alawite minority versus all the other Syrians. Assad has support from a cross section of Syrians, not just the Alawites. But Syriac Christians, Syrian Druze, those portions of the Syrian Sunni community that have benefited from his family’s rule and/or been coopted by the Assads through patronage. The Syrian Civil War, despite the best efforts of almost everyone, cannot simply be reduced to: Assad and the Alawites with the backing of Russia and Iran against everyone else. This is simply not true. To borrow Gerwath’s formulation, or Marshall’s interpretation of Gerwath: there are brutalizers and brutalized on each side of the Syrian Civil War. Breaking that dynamic, or, at least, working by, with, and through our local partners to set the conditions to do so, will be necessary to not just win the war, but to win and secure the peace.

This is One Important Reason Why We are Still Militarily Engaged in Iraq

I keep meaning to do a post on what is going on with the ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria – honest, but so much is going on I keep getting sidetracked.

Regardless, I just saw this and I think it is important to highlight it:

We in the US bear an incredibly large amount of the moral responsibility for what is going on in Iraq and Syria. It was the failure of American strategy, and in some cases just the actual lack of American strategy, in the post invasion phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom that set the conditions for the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq and its ultimate transformation into ISIL. Right now the US led coalition is pursuing a by, with, and through strategy with our Iraqi partners to drive ISIL from Mosul, and ultimately Iraq. By, with, and through is one of the key operational concepts of the US Army’s Green Berets, which has been borrowed and adapted by Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. The Iraqi soldier who is saving that young Iraqi boy’s life in the video above is at the tip of the spear in the fight against ISIL. The US and our coalition partners are in support. Some of that support is training. Some of it is logistics. Some of it is air support. And some of it is direct and indirect fires. But day in and day out the Iraqi regular and irregular forces are at the forefront of fixing a problem created by the strategic malpractice of the US over the past fourteen years.

If you ever wonder what we’re still doing over there, that video is your answer. We’re providing support to the Iraqis that are risking their lives to protect each other in order to clean up a mess of our making.

We’re doing penance.