Trump on the offensive

A surge in America's military power, led by special forces and new weapons, augurs an even more dangerous era in global security.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 February 2017

The unpredictable day-to-day behaviour of the new United States administration continues to provoke widespread consternation. Amid the noise, however, one important signal of the unfolding Donald Trump era is being neglected: the rebuilding of the American military.

Why this is so, when the country's armed forces are already by a very large margin the most powerful in the world, is a question worth asking. The Pentagon’s budget is close to 45% of all global military spending, so it seems ludicrous to envisage a further expansion. Yet Trump and his key generals do see a renewed surge as the certain way to turn the slogan “make America great again” from rhetoric into enduring reality (see "Trump and the Pentagon", 17 November 2016).

The precise details of where the money will be spent are not yet clear, but it is likely that two areas will predominate. The first is military power-projection involving substantial conventional forces, especially an expansion of the capacities of the US navy and marine corps. Much of this will be focused on China rather than Russia. About Moscow, two factors mitigate concern: that Russian military forces are actually weak, underfunded and not remotely a match for American, and that Trump firmly believes that he and Vladimir Putin can get along just fine.

The second area is special forces, emphasis on which reflects the evident if rarely acknowledged failure of conventional approaches in Iraq and Afghanistan. US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) now has a total strength of around 70,000 personnel – not far short of the entire British army at the end of the latter's current round of cutbacks.

Their expansion accelerated under Barack Obama, and is likely to do so again because of Trump's declared intent to crush ISIS. After the new president visited the Pentagon, it was credibly reported that he expects the defense department to outline options which rely heavily on greater use of special forces. At the same time, Trump’s people also seem tempted to deploy substantial numbers of regular troops into Iraq and Syria - in spite of those recent calamities. 

The current total in the two countries is reported to be around 5,000, but the figure almost certainly omits many special forces or the hundreds of regular troops on short-term rotation. In his election campaign, Trump talked of putting in 20,000-30,000 soldiers; a post-election conjecture is that a full United States army brigade will be mobilised to help take Raqqa when that operation starts. With supporting personnel that would represent a doubling of the current force size (see Kevin Baron, "How the U.S. Military Sees the Anti-ISIS Fight", Atlantic, 18 January 2017).

Two further elements are mooted. The first is to allow existing contingents to have a much freer reign on when they can use Apache and other helicopter-gunships and powerful artillery-pieces such as the devastating high-mobility artillery-rocket system (HIMARS). The second is to work far more closely with the Kurds, especially in Syria. Indeed the assumption is that if a brigade is committed to the assault on Raqqa, it will operate in close coordination with the Kurdish forces linked to the YPG - a strategy full of risks since Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist organisation.

Thus a major escalation of the war against ISIS is in train, even though its precise form is still unclear. How is the ISIS leadership likely to view this approach?

The long view

There is no doubt that the movement is in trouble, as it faces the American-led coalition's persistent air-onslaught and the Iraqi army's current ground-assault in Mosul. Yet the planned two-month operation to retake Mosul is now nearing four months' duration, with no end in sight. But ISIS, as suggested in the most recent “Letters from Raqqa”, still has some reasons for optimism. 

These come into greater focus if the attention shifts from the Middle East towards Europe, where the evolving environment is looking even more favourable for ISIS in light of Trump’s anti-Muslim instincts and policies.

Brexit, with its promise that the UK will lean even more heavily towards an anti-Islamic stance, is welcome to ISIS. The increasing salience of the migration-refugee issue across Europe, and the far right's exploitation of it in order to foment attacks on Islam and polarise society, is a related bonus. 

Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen in France – both seeking power in forthcoming elections – personify the trend. Viktor Orban’s government, in the latest of several provocative initiatives, is proposing that the European Union detains all asylum-seekers in what are euphemistically described as “shelters”.

The ISIS leadership has a long-term perspective on the conflict it is involved in, extending to decades if not a century or more. In that light, the loss of Mosul or even Raqqa is of less consequence. For the movement, the "mere anarchy" conjured by WB Yeats a century ago – “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” – is but a necessary prelude to the establishment of the true caliphate. ISIS now sees its “far enemy” beginning to fall apart, and believes it has time on its side.

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