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Trump's plan to destroy ISIS may hit limits
As part of his campaign platform, Trump has promised to wipe out ISIS, both financially and militarily; however, military officials argue that victory may come at the expense of US lives, entrench US in ethnic conflict.
WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump's call for a military plan to defeat ISIS is likely to see the Pentagon revisiting options for a more aggressive use of firepower and American troops.

 

 

But US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, doubt the country's military will advocate fundamentally changing a key strategy refined during the Obama administration: relying on local forces to do most of the fighting, and dying, in Syria and Iraq.

 

"I think it's going to be very successful. That's big stuff," said Trump as he signed an executive order on Saturday requesting the Pentagon, joint chiefs of staff and other agencies to submit a preliminary plan in 30 days for defeating ISIS, fulfilling one of his campaign trail pledges.

 

ISIS fighters leading Turkish soldiers out of their cage to their execution spot
ISIS fighters leading Turkish soldiers out of their cage to their execution spot

The order calls for the combined experts to recommend any changes needed to US rules of engagement or other policy restrictions, to identify new coalition partners and to suggest mechanisms for choking off ISIS funding sources. It also demands a detailed strategy for funding the plan.

 

Trump made defeating ISIS - which has claimed responsibility for several attacks on American soil and is frustrating US military operations across the Middle East - one of the key themes in his campaign. But he avoided talking about specifics of any plan to combat the radical group.

 

Any shifts by the US military would have broad repercussions for US relationships across the Middle East, which were strained by former President Barack Obama's effort throughout his administration to limit US military involvement in Iraq and Syria.

 

Turkish soldiers before being killed by ISIS
Turkish soldiers before being killed by ISIS

 

Trump's Defense Secretary James Mattis has advocated a more forceful approach against ISIS, but how he will pursue that remains unclear.

 

US military officials have long acknowledged the United States could more quickly defeat ISIS by using its own forces, instead of local fighters, on the battlefield.

 

But victory, many US military officials have argued, would come at the expense of more US lives lost and ultimately do little to create a lasting solution to conflicts fueled by bitter ethnic, religious and political divides in nations with fierce anti-American sentiment.

 

David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who once led US forces in Afghanistan, said it would be a major escalation if Trump's administration opted to rely on US troops by putting them into a direct combat role and effectively substitute them for local forces.

 

"We've been down that road, and I don't think the American people are excited about that idea," said Barno, who now teaches at American University in Washington, D.C.

 

Experts said the Pentagon could still request additional forces, beyond the less than 6,000 American troops deployed to both Iraq and Syria today, helping the US military to go further and do more in the fight.

 

ISIS in Sinai shoots a rocket at Israel
ISIS in Sinai shoots a rocket at Israel

 

But they also said the Pentagon may focus on smaller-scale options like increasing the number of attack helicopters and air strikes as well as bringing in more artillery. The military may also seek more authority to make battlefield decisions.

 

Obama's administration found itself for years battling accusations of micromanaging the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

 

"I do think the Pentagon will argue for, and get a lot more authority, to put advisers and special operators closer into the fight," Barno said.

 

Raqqa ramp-up

Trump, who pledged in his inaugural address to eradicate ISIS and like-minded groups "from the face of the earth," met military chiefs at the Pentagon for about an hour on Friday.

 

A US defense official, speaking to reporters after the talks, said they discussed ways to accelerate the defeat of ISIS, among other hot-button issues, including the threat from North Korea, but offered no details.

"The chiefs did most of the talking," the official said.

 

In Syria, the big step for the US-backed forces will be finally taking control of the ISIS's de facto capital of Raqqa.

 

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Mattis said he believed the United States already had a strategy that would allow the American military to regain control of Raqqa. But he said that strategy needed to be reviewed and "perhaps energized on a more aggressive timeline."

 

One key decision awaiting the Trump administration is whether to directly provide weapons to Kurdish fighters in Syria as they push toward Raqqa, despite fierce objections from NATO ally Turkey.

 

ISIS tank
ISIS tank

 

The United States views the Kurdish fighters as its most reliable ally in Syria but Ankara sees them as an extension of Kurdish militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil.

 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include the Kurdish fighters, launched a multi-stage operation in Raqqa province in November aimed ultimately at capturing the city from ISIS.

 

Across the border in Iraq, local forces backed by US-led coalition airstrikes and advisers on the ground have secured a major part of ISIS's Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.

 

Still, US military leaders warn ISIS will likely morph into a more classic insurgency once it loses Raqqa and Mosul, meaning the fight could stretch on for years.

 

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