President Trump’s tendency toward sharp and sudden policy reversals has been pronounced on Sunni jihadism, with his stunning December 2018 announcement that the Islamic State had been defeated, so American troops would withdraw from Syria imminently. Senior White House officials then suggested the withdrawal would be conditions-based, leaving ambiguity about how long U.S. troops would remain.1 If implemented, a quick withdrawal would have a greater impact on the conflict with Sunni jihadism than anything else the administration has done in its first two years.
Syria policy aside, America’s counterterrorism efforts since 9/11 generally reflect continuity across three ideologically divergent administrations. In part, this is because once the gears of government are set in motion for such a large issue, significant changes can be hard and costly. In part, it is because the enemy gets a vote, and the Sunni jihadist threat has been persistent.
The Trump administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism claims to “set forth a new approach,”2 yet Joshua Geltzer, who served capably as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterterrorism from 2015-17, assessed Trump’s strategy document as “a generally mainstream strategy issued under the name of this decidedly non-mainstream president.”3 Perhaps the most notable difference from Obama’s strategy is the new document’s use of the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism.”4 But language does not a strategy make.
It would also be a mistake to see the Trump administration’s approach as a unified strategy, rather than a mix of various approaches. One attribute of this mix has been more aggressive targeting, for example in the use of drone strikes. Likewise, the Trump administration loosened the U.S. military’s rules of battlefield engagement.
A second attribute of the policy mix during the administration’s first two years was increased pressure on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – something the announced withdrawal would change. The Trump administration intensified, and somewhat matured, the use of proxy forces, particularly the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish group that has been effective fighting against the Islamic State.
A third attribute was ending the CIA program supporting Syrian rebel groups. As Reuters reported in July 2017, Trump “decided to halt the CIA’s covert program to equip and train certain rebel groups fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”5 This included groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, such as Osoud al-Sharqiya, which is on record stating that it received CIA support before the program ended.6
A fourth attribute, also distinct from Obama’s approach, is reducing the prominence of, and funding for, CVE programming. Countering violent extremism (CVE) is a tool for preventing radicalization and recruitment that came to be identified with Obama’s approach to terrorism, though it had its origins in the Bush administration. The Trump administration significantly reduced funding for what was formerly known as the Office for Community Partnerships, the Department of Homeland Security’s lead organ for CVE. The Trump counterterrorism strategy does include preventive and counter-messaging elements, and has made one distinctive shift by treating them as more integrated into, and less separate from, other counterterrorism efforts.
Trump has, with some justification, listed the Islamic State’s collapse as a territorial entity as one of his administration’s accomplishments. Yet there is no basis for President Trump’s claim that “we have won against ISIS.”7 Further, despite the Islamic State’s territorial losses, the overall problem of Sunni jihadism has been dangerously expanding over successive administrations. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate in more countries than ever. More jihadists are fighting for control of collapsed countries than at any point since the 9/11 attacks. Despite the loss of its caliphate, the Islamic State has made a comeback in Syria and Iraq as an insurgent force. In Afghanistan, the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001, and the prospects for its return to power are growing. The relatively consistent U.S. approach to the problem across administrations has not succeeded in diminishing the challenge of Sunni jihadism.
Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate in more countries than ever. More jihadists are fighting for control of collapsed countries than at any point since the 9/11 attacks.
Aggressive targeting, which helped speed the Islamic State’s territorial decline, is a double-edged sword: It can cause an enemy to collapse more quickly, but can also produce civilian casualties. This has moral implications, and when a state is battling against a non-state actor, civilian casualties can fuel an insurgency.
On the other hand, it is worth noting what legal scholar and retired General Charles Dunlap refers to as “the moral hazard of inaction.” Less aggressive targeting does not necessarily reduce overall civilian casualties because, for example, “the ISIS fighters who might have been killed lived on to butcher civilians.”8 On the whole, the Trump administration’s loosened rules of engagement appear beneficial; but they have not stopped the Islamic State from regrouping as insurgents.
The administration’s use of proxies (a continuation of Obama’s approach) also contributed to the Islamic State’s territorial collapse, but our partners on the ground have created their own difficulties. The YPG has alienated Turkey, and does not operate well outside of Kurdish areas. Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pressure to end U.S. support for Kurdish forces apparently factored heavily in Trump’s withdrawal announcement.9 That said, the use of proxies is likely unavoidable. The impact of a quick American withdrawal from Syria on our Kurdish allies should be a strong consideration as the executive branch decides whether to follow through on Trump’s announcement.
CIA support for the Syrian rebels fighting Assad was not an effective use of proxies, so Trump was right to end it. The CIA program had helped some of the worst jihadist groups, including those explicitly aligned with al-Qaeda, to gain ground in Syria.10
With regard to CVE, scaling back domestic programming has weakened an effective tool for preventing radicalization.11 A reduction was perhaps inevitable, since the Trump administration is highly controversial in key communities the government has engaged through CVE programs. Nonetheless, the administration has too steeply reduced CVE programming, and many organs and policies for countering violent extremism will eventually have to be rebuilt.
There is a distinct lack of clarity about whether American troops will withdraw from Syria imminently. A hasty withdrawal would certainly make Sunni jihadism a graver problem. The Islamic State is not defeated, and a U.S. withdrawal would hurt America’s Kurdish allies as Turkey moves in to northern Syria. Turkey’s engagement would likely also strengthen non-Islamic State Sunni jihadists in the area, with whom Turkey has proved too eager to align in the past. Fortunately, there is still time to slow the pace of this announced withdrawal.
Beyond the withdrawal question, the U.S. continues to struggle in its engagements against violent non-state actors. This difficulty is analogous to the problem “legacy industries” have when they compete with startup firms in the economic sphere: bureaucratic actors have difficulty coordinating strategy and matching their policies to the current technological landscape.12 The administration will have the greatest positive impact if it can address these systemic factors that affect the ability of the U.S. counterterrorism “industry” to innovate and adapt: