Trump con­tin­ues U.S. use of spe­cial forces in con­flicts

Strat­egy, used by Obama, Bush, keeps war at arm’s length.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - NATION & WORLD - Eric Sch­mitt

MARA, CHAD — From Ye­men to Syria to here in Cen­tral Africa, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­ly­ing on Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces to in­ten­sify its promised fight against the Is­lamic State group and other ter­ror­ist groups as se­nior of­fi­cials em­brace an Obama-era strat­egy to min­i­mize the U.S. mil­i­tary’s foot­print over­seas.

In Africa, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ex­pected to soon ap­prove a Pen­tagon pro­posal to re­move con­straints on Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions airstrikes and raids in parts of So­ma­lia to tar­get sus­pected mil­i­tants with al-Shabab, an ex­trem­ist group linked to al-Qaida. Crit­ics say that the change — in one of the few re­jec­tions of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s guide­lines for the elite forces — would by­pass rules that seek to pre­vent civil­ian deaths from drone at­tacks and com­mando op­er­a­tions.

But in their two months in of­fice, Trump of­fi­cials have shown few other signs that they want to back away from Obama’s strat­egy to train, equip and oth­er­wise sup­port in­dige­nous armies and se­cu­rity forces to fight their own wars in­stead of hav­ing to de­ploy large U.S. forces to far-flung hot spots.

“Africans are at war; we’re not,” said Col. Kelly Smith, 47, a Green Beret com­man­der who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a di­rec­tor of a coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­er­cise in Chad this month in­volv­ing about 2,000 African and West­ern troops and train­ers. “But we have a strate­gic in­ter­est in the suc­cess of part­ners.”

Trump came to of­fice with­out a clearly ar­tic­u­lated phi­los­o­phy for us­ing the mil­i­tary to fight ter­ror­ist groups. He had promised to be more ag­gres­sive in tak­ing on the Is­lamic State — even sug­gest­ing dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that he had a se­cret plan — but had also sig­naled a de­sire to rein in the no­tion of the United States as the world’s peace­keeper and claimed at var­i­ous points to have op­posed the ground in­va­sion of Iraq.

Now, sur­rounded by gen­er­als who have been at the cen­ter of a decade­long shift to rely on Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces to project power with­out the risks and costs of large ground wars, he is choos­ing to main­tain the same ap­proach but giv­ing the Pen­tagon more lat­i­tude.

That lee­way car­ries its own per­ils. Last week, the Pen­tagon went to un­usual lengths to de­fend an airstrike in Syria that U.S. of­fi­cials said killed dozens of al-Qaida op­er­a­tives at a meet­ing place — and not civil­ians at a mosque, as ac­tivists and lo­cal res­i­dents main­tain.

It was yet an­other ex­am­ple of the mixed suc­cess Trump’s for­ays with spe­cial op­er­a­tors have had so far. An ill-fated raid in Jan­uary by the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 against al-Qaida fight­ers in Ye­men marred the pres­i­dent’s first coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sion, five days af­ter he be­came com­man­der in chief. In Mo­sul, how­ever, Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions ad­vis­ers are the U.S. troops clos­est to the fight in Iraq to oust the Is­lamic State group from its strong­hold there. That is also likely to be the case in the im­pend­ing bat­tle to re­claim Raqqa in east­ern Syria.

Trump is largely re­ly­ing on the poli­cies of his two im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, Obama and Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, who were also great ad­vo­cates of Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces. On Obama’s or­ders, SEAL Team 6 com­man­dos killed Osama bin Laden in his hide­out in Pakistan in 2011.

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