A series of events in the Middle East and Africa has stirred new questions about President Trump’s counterterrorism strategy as the U.S. focus in Iraq and Syria shifts to stabilization, and the battle against the Islamic State moves elsewhere.
Taken together, the events call into question what long-term goals the United States has as it fights militants around the globe — and some critics of the administration are finding its rationale lacking.
“We have no strategy,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said this week.
McCain was referring to Iraq, but he has leveled the criticism at Trump’s approach around the world — just as he did with the Obama administration.
The Pentagon is investigating the circumstances surrounding a deadly ambush of a U.S. patrol in Niger that left four soldiers dead.
The attack put a spotlight on little-noticed counterterrorism operations in Africa, leading to questions about whether the United States has a larger strategy there.
Meanwhile, government forces and militias clashed this week with Kurdish forces in the mixed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which Kurds briefly had under their control. The fighting has prompted questions in Congress about whether the United States has planned to mitigate sectarian violence after the fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
And in Syria, U.S.-backed forces claimed victory in ISIS’s onetime de facto capital of Raqqa, a hard-fought win that nonetheless raises questions about the United States’s stabilization plans in a country that remains marred in civil war.
The attack in Niger, in particular, has elicited heated debate between lawmakers and the Trump administration. McCain has slammed the administration for failing to provide his committee with information, floating the possibility that a subpoena may be necessary.
Among the questions McCain said he wants answered is what the U.S. strategy is there.
“We want to know everything,” McCain said Thursday, adding strategy is “most important.”
A day later, McCain met with Defense Secretary James Mattis and said he was working on getting those answers.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an Armed Services Committee member and ally of McCain, also met with Mattis on Friday and voiced support for operations in Niger, saying that “we don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger.”
But he repeated that Congress needs to be kept apprised of the mission.
“The American public needs to get ready for more operations, not less,” Graham said Friday. “We’re going to build on what President Obama did in some of these countries. We’re probably going to go to other places because that’s where the enemy is taking us. We’re going to be aggressive. So that means that the Congress has to be more informed so we can decide whether or not we buy off on all this.”
After the attack, the Pentagon said that the United States has about 1,000 troops in the Chad Basin, about 800 of whom are in Niger.
Facing a barrage of questions from reporters Thursday, Pentagon officials said the mission in Africa is about training partner nations in counterterrorism.
“On the African continent, we’re engaged with a variety of partner nations building CT capacity, counterterrorist capacity,” Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said at a briefing. “Niger is an excellent example of that, we’ve had a long relationship with them. There are a variety of nations there that we do that. Our missions are advise and assist. We’re not directly involved in combat operations.”
Pentagon officials have blamed the attack on what they described as self-radicalized, ISIS-affiliated militants, prompting questions about the terrorist group’s spread as the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria crumbles.
“We recognize, we’re never going to be able to completely do away with this problem. It’s always going to bubble a little bit,” McKenzie said. “But we want to get to the point where local nations, and Niger’s an excellent example, local nations are going to be able to deal with the problem themselves, without large deployments of American forces.”
This week saw the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated militia backed by the United States, claim victory over ISIS in Raqqa and reaffirm plans to hand control of the city over to the so-called Raqqa Civil Council, a U.S.-supported group of locals.
Asked this week about the United States’s view on the Syrian government having a role in Raqqa, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called that a “hypothetical,” and said the focus now is on providing locals with basic human needs.
“That’s a hypothetical question,” Nauert said at a briefing when asked about the possibility of Raqqa’s coordination with Damascus. “We’re not even anywhere near that point. I mean, we’re at the point where people are not living — except for maybe a few — are not living in Raqqa. They’re in [internationally displaced person] camps in that country. We know that many refugees — millions, in fact — were forced to leave that country, so we’re a long way off from that point.”
Asked about the post-ISIS plans for Syria, McCain said this week that “there is no strategy in Syria that I know of.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said it appears to him there have been no conversations in the U.S. government about what Raqqa looks like after the fall of ISIS.
“It seems we have absolutely no plan for what happens after we push ISIS firmly out of the cities,” he said. “ISIS isn’t going to go away. They are simply going to wait until the reconstruction and efforts at political settlement fail to reemerge.”
Murphy also said the United States has empowered the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq without having a plan for what inevitably comes next — their desire for an independent state.
This week in Iraq, Kurdish forces faced off against the Iraqi government when pro-government forces advanced into the disputed territory of Kirkuk. The move was a response to last month’s nonbinding vote for Kurdish independence.
The oil-rich area Kirkuk, which the Kurds have controlled since dispelling ISIS in 2014, has been at the heart of the dispute between the Kurdish region and Iraq’s central government.
U.S. officials have called this week’s exchange of fire a misunderstanding, and said the Iraqi movements had been coordinated with the Kurds beforehand.
But on Capitol Hill, it was yet another incident that raised questions about what the U.S. strategy is as the war against ISIS evolves.
“The Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, Shia militia, it’s all a jumble,” McCain said. To sort it out, he said, the United States needs to “develop a strategy to win, which we have not.”