On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing on the fight against ISIS, which has been going well lately. Here are the key takeaways.
1. ISIS Has Been Destroyed
Among the panelists convened to discuss the Islamic State was Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant to President Trump, who called the destruction of ISIS “one of the great untold stories of the last seven months.”
It’s hard to argue with that. America seems to have won a war and nobody noticed. As Gorka pointed out in his opening remarks, three years ago ISIS had eclipsed al-Qaeda as the most powerful jihadist organization in the world. It controlled territory in three countries, had operational affiliates in more than a dozen others, was making $2 million a day, and its theocratic caliphate (the first to be established since 1924) ruled over some 6 million people.
Today, all of that is gone. In a string of defeats that began with Iraqi forces seizing control of Ramadi at the end of 2015, ISIS was gradually pushed out of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Mosul, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa (the nominal capital of ISIS), and numerous points in between. On December 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State, saying Iraqi forces had secured the entire Iraq-Syria border.
Despite these victories, every panelist stressed that the fight is not over yet, and that the United States needs to develop a political strategy to ensure that ISIS isn’t given the breathing room it would need to regroup and reemerge in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
2. The Trump Administration Shifted To A Strategy of Annihilation
Although it’s true that ISIS was beginning to lose ground in the final months of the Obama administration, the reason ISIS is now a fragmented and scattered terrorist group like al-Qaeda is because of a few key strategic changes by the Trump administration. Chief among these, according to Gorka, was a shift away from Obama’s policy of “attrition” to Trump’s policy of “annihilation.”
Under President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis, America has moved from a strategy of “attrition” to a strategy of “annihilation" against #ISIS. @SebGorka explains in testimony to the House Subcommittee on National Security https://t.co/0OlBteS8p6 pic.twitter.com/F8a3ciZGNO
— Nick Short (@PoliticalShort) January 17, 2018
“The Trump administration has taken what the Obama White House called a ‘generational threat’ and made it strategically irrelevant in the space of just a few months,” Gorka said.
3. The Obama Administration Was More Interested In PR Victories
One reason the Trump administration succeeded where the Obama administration failed is because Obama was more concerned with image than with getting the job done. Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute noted a key strategy change between the Trump and Obama administrations was “strategic patience” regarding battlefield victories.
“The Obama administration showed more interest in gaining PR victories than in gaining tactical or strategic intelligence victories,” Pregent said. “One of the biggest shifts in President Obama’s approach versus President Trump’s approach is that, under President Trump, after high-value targets are killed, the military often waits up to two weeks to publicly announce the successful operation.”
Such an approach, he added, allows for follow-on raids based on communication patterns and intel seized from terrorists’ computers and personal effects. By contrast, Obama was too eager to have his accomplishments splashed on the front page of The New York Times to allow for such strategic patience.
4. Under Trump, Battlefield Commanders Were Empowered To Make Decisions
But the most significant change in strategy between the Trump and Obama administrations, according to Pregent, had to do with U.S. rules of engagement (ROE). Under Obama, the rules were highly restrictive.
“It wasn’t just interference. Obama-era rules of engagement were very stringent, designed in part to avoid the potential loss of a pilot,” Pregent said. “The established framework was to strike targets at night, and only if there was a high certainty of hitting the right target while minimizing collateral damage. Furthermore, the Obama administration made the decision to avoid striking convoys carrying oil out of environmental concerns. Thus, ISIS was enabled to continue profiting enormously from the oil trade. The U.S. Treasury estimated ISIS made up to $500 million a year from oil in 2015.”
The Obama admin's anti-ISIS strategy took away from the combatant commander the decision making process, resulting in lost opportunities to kill and capture targets of opportunity…the Trump admin has reversed this policy explains @MPPregent pic.twitter.com/TrBH5ahpXY
— Security Studies Group (@SecStudiesGrp) January 17, 2018
The Obama-era policy required field commanders to get clearance from the National Security Council (NSC) before firing on targets, which was time-consuming and meant that many such “targets of opportunity” were lost, since the window for striking was sometimes a matter of seconds. The result was that American forces under Obama didn’t take out many ISIS leaders and soldiers they otherwise could have.
The Trump administration relaxed these ROE and authorized battlefield commanders to make decisions on the ground, in real time, without asking permission from the Department of Defense or NSC. This freed them up to make the kind of nimble decisions necessary to fight an evolving enemy.
Phillip Lohaus of the American Enterprise Institute echoed these points, noting that while there is always some friction between any White House and subordinate agencies, the Obama administration amplified this friction with an “emphasis on caution and an aversion to risk, an inefficient target nominations process, and, above all, the involvement of the National Security Council — and often the President himself — in day-to-day operational and tactical decision-making.”
That didn’t just mean missed drone strikes, said Lohaus, but also an increase in “the weight of political considerations in decisions affecting national security.” The Trump administration did away with all that. The result wasn’t just the rapid acceleration of ISIS’s decline, but, according to Gorka, an “unprecedented change” in the morale of U.S. troops and battlefield commanders.
5. Some Democrats Can’t Get Over Their Hatred Of Gorka
Despite an otherwise substantive review of the status of ISIS and the shift in strategy that has led to its destruction, the hearing also featured a little irrelevant political showboating. Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois who’s not a member of the subcommittee, showed up to do some virtue-signaling unrelated to the fight against ISIS. It was a lame attempt to resurrect some completely discredited accusations against Gorka. The clip below more or less sums up the embarrassing display Krishnamoorthi put on:
Gorka tried to steer Krishnamoorthi back to subject of the hearing, but that’s not why the Democrat came. He wanted to “expose” Gorka. He just made a fool of himself.
It’s too bad the hearing ended on that note. After all, ISIS has been routed. It has lost nearly all its territory, in particular the large cities it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, and has returned to its guerilla roots. This victory is due in no small part to strategic changes the Trump administration brought to the fight.
Now, the challenge will be to stop ISIS from benefiting from an unstable and war-torn Middle East. That will require not only vigilance from the White House, but also patience from the American people.