President Trump kept two aspects of his foreign policy vision consistent throughout the campaign and after the November election. He promises to reduce U.S. intervention into foreign conflicts because “we’re all over the place fighting in areas that we shouldn't be fighting.” He also vows to subdue the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups that threaten the United States. Preventing terrorists from operating in unstable environments and directing attacks elsewhere is a task that, ostensibly, may require U.S. military action. Thus, the president finds himself in a paradoxical situation: How can one honor pledges to draw down military interventions while simultaneously commit to effectively defeating a terrorist group with an extensive global reach? Special operations forces (SOF) units and drones will surely remain key in responding to this threat environment in a way which is congruent with the President’s policies.
Long-term, however, this approach won’t work. Both SOF units and the drone program face serious operational and reputational limits after a decade of overuse. Further depleting these resources will damage U.S. counterterrorism capabilities.
President Obama entered office in 2009 with promises similar to President Trump’s in 2017 – eliminating terrorist threats while limiting U.S. involvement in large, protracted conflicts. This so-called “right-sizing” of U.S. military presence in the Middle East increased reliance on SOF troops and drones as counterterrorism tactics. However, ISIS’s 2014 rout of U.S.-trained Iraqi Security Forces as part of its attempt to reestablish the “caliphate” showcased the weakness of this minimalist counterterrorism strategy.
noted that SOF unit deaths have skyrocketed relative to conventional units since the Obama administration’s 2010-2011 drawdown from Iraq, with 12 of the 18 service members killed in 2016 hailing from Army Special Operations or Navy SEAL units. A former SEAL Team Six officer noted that many veteran commandos have “been doing this non-stop for about 10 years” while numerous commanders of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and JSOC have voiced their concerns of SOF units “fraying” and “burning out” due to high operational tempos and long deployment lengths.
The United States government executed an average of 67 drone strikes per year between 2009 and 2015, causing approximately 2,500 combatant and 100 non-combatant deaths total. Despite the relatively low collateral damage ratio, U.S. drone use continues to face widespread global opposition, notably in key partner nations including Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Whether seen as a violation to sovereignty or as a danger to non-combatants, the controversial program designed to limit the number of Americans in harm’s way is carefully scrutinized by several non-profits and further normalizing drones as a “go-to” tactic could tarnish the United States’ credibility.
The Obama counterterrorism doctrine proved effective at times, especially in the elimination of terrorist leaders, with SOF raids and drone strikes being responsible for the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, respectively. Yet this approach pushed both programs to their operational limits while failing to contain the reemergence of ISIS and al Qaeda throughout the region. President Trump inherited this lopsided strategy, and although he wishes to reinvent the counterterrorism wheel, his options may be limited to following his predecessor’s approach if he wants results to match rhetoric.
Worse yet, the overreliance on SOF and drones won’t accomplish the mission. It does not address long-term issues like stable governance, sectarianism or economic inequality, which continue to facilitate terrorist advances in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other conflict zones. Indeed, a path that emphasizes direct action as the primary means could very likely result in a situation requiring large numbers of conventional forces to resolve the conflict.
The president should commit to enduring civilian and military stability operations supported by appropriate kinetic action, not the other way around. Adopting raids and strikes as a strategy will do little to ensure partner countries can defend themselves, which should be the United States’ primary goal. The president has surrounded himself with former officers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He should listen when they no doubt tell him that overreliance on SOF and drones will lead to the same shortcomings previous administrations faced. He needs to realize there are no easy solutions.
Heesemann is a researcher with the Center for a New American Security.