When Trump went to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa last month for his first major visit with U.S. troops, he met behind closed doors with the top two generals of the ISIS war, General Joseph Votel of Central Command and General Tony Thomas of U.S. Special Operations Command. Later, Thomas, at a special operations conference outside of Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, said Trump had asked them “[v]ery practical questions” like “What are we trying to accomplish? How do we win?”
Thomas offered reporters basically the same answers given by virtually every military leader over the past eight years or so when asked about winning the war on terrorism. Answering questions specifically about the recent Yemen operation in which a Navy SEAL was killed, Thomas immediately went for the long view. He said he wanted Americans to understand those elite counterterrorism operations are occurring nightly but “unless we get governance on the back side of our military efforts, this is going to be a long struggle.” Winning the war on terrorism, in other words, is going to take a lot more than winning each night raid or even winning the entire battle.
Generals don’t much like to talk about “winning” against terrorism. They understand and tell the public and congress that the United States is in a 10-, 30-, 100- year battle against a multi-generational ideological war of ideas that goes far beyond the military battlefield. In that context, what is “winning”?
Thomas said he supported General Votel’s current war plan, which was Obama’s war plan: “The truth of it, I think, [Votel’s] logic, which is compelling, is that — more troops on the ground, maybe you own the problem when you’re done with it, as opposed to his approach, which is ‘by, with, and through,’ which I think is a more appropriate approach,” Thomas said. He was referring to the Pentagon’s preferred plan of fighting ISIS through U.S.-trained local forces instead of fighting terrorists directly with large numbers of American ground troops. “At the end of the day, the places we defeat ISIS need to be owned by the local people and be governed by the local people, that’s what we’re hoping.”
Trump, however, is fixated on a more conspicuous form of winning. “We have to start winning wars again,” he said Monday. “I have to say, when I was young, in high school, and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war. You remember,” he said. “Some of you were right there with me, and you remember? We never lost a war. America never lost. And, now, we never win a war. We never win. And we don’t fight to win.”
His public fixation, despite the four-star guidance he received, has implications for the budget and the war plan. Last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford said the new counter-ISIS war plan the Pentagon was sending to Trump actually was not a “military plan.” It was a whole-of-government plan, calling for non-military help to fight ISIS. There was no talk of “winning” and Dunford certainly understands why. He was commander of the seemingly never-ending Afghanistan War. But on Monday, Trump proudly boasted that his first federal budget proposal would shift $54 billion to the Pentagon from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other non-defense agencies. It sounds like the complete antithesis of what Dunford said the Pentagon was about to propose. Defense Secretary James Mattis delivered that plan to the White House on Monday.