Trump continues U.S. use of special forces in conflicts
Strategy, used by Obama, Bush, keeps war at arm’s length.
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.