President Trump made defeating radical Islamic terrorists a key part of his presidential campaign. So far in his first 100 days, experts say he is making good on that promise.
“Right now, I give him an A honestly,” Retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, told Breitbart News.
Underscoring that progress was the U.S. military’s announcement Friday that it had killed a close associate of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a ground raid in Syria.
The associate, Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, had planned the deadly New Year’s Eve attack at a nightclub in Istanbul, which killed 39 civilians.
In Trump’s first three months in office, there’s been a significant uptick in the number of airstrikes targeting terrorists in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan.
U.S. military officials say Trump has not given the military any “new” authorities – in terms of long-standing rules and standards governing the use of force.
But what Trump has done is expand commanders’ targeting authorities in some locations, roll back restrictions put into place by the Obama administration, and encourage military commanders to exercise the authority they already have.
“We’re actually using the authorities that weren’t used before for political reasons,” a senior White House official told Breitbart News. “Theater commanders have been unshackled. Everyone’s been unshackled to do their job.”
Specifically, Trump has rolled back in some areas a 2013 requirement put into place by former President Obama requiring all counterterrorism airstrikes outside of a conventional war zone like Afghanistan be vetted by the White House and other agencies.
Under Obama, such counterterrorism strikes would undergo “high-level, interagency vetting” to ensure that the targets posed a threat to Americans, and that there was a “near-certainty” that no civilians would be killed, according to the New York Times.
About a week after his inauguration, Trump approved a Pentagon proposal to roll back those requirements in Yemen, to allow the military to step up the counterterrorism fight in Yemen against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — considered the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate for its repeated attempts to attack the U.S. homeland.
The plan included the designation of three provinces in Yemen as “areas of active hostilities,” which allows commanders to strike when there is a “reasonable certainty” that no civilians will be killed, versus a “near certainty,” as reported by ABC News.
As a result, the number of strikes against AQAP has almost doubled under Trump, from 40 confirmed strikes in 2016, to at least 76 so far.
Similarly, President Trump in March designated parts of Somalia as areas of active hostilities, which granted U.S. Africom Commander Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser the authority to conduct offensive counterterrorism strikes and raids, versus striking only when Americans were under threat, and when there’s a “near-certainty” no civilians will be killed.
There have been no confirmed U.S. airstrikes in Somalia yet since the designation, but Africom is stepping up their advising mission. The command confirmed last Monday it were sending a “few dozen” U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to Somalia to train Somali National Army and African Union peacekeepers – a doubling of American special operations forces there, according to CNN. Officials said the deployment was planned before Trump took office.
In the fight against ISIS, Trump during his first week on the job ordered Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to come up with a plan within 30 days on how to defeat the terrorist group.
Mattis submitted a plan, to be then fleshed out by the Central Command commander. The plan is in its final stages of planning, the senior White House official said.
In the meantime, the number of strikes in Iraq and Syria reached a record high in March since the U.S.-led air war began in 2014 — 3,878, according to statistics released periodically by U.S. Central Command.
Officials say the increase in airstrikes against ISIS has to do with the current phase of the campaign — simultaneous offensives in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria — rather than any changes under Trump. They also say Centcom commander Army Gen. Joe Votel in December allowed for the delegating of strike authority from a three-star general to a one-star general to speed up the approval process for airstrikes.
But U.S. strikes against al-Qaeda in Syria — which is separate from the ISIS fight — have also seen a “relative increase” since Trump took office, a defense official said.
The U.S. military in late February also killed al-Qaeda’s second in command in Syria, and in March conducted a strike against al Qaeda in Jinah, which U.S. officials said killed a “few dozen” militants.
And more is expected to come in the ISIS fight, as the administration finalizes its new plan. A U.S. military official recently told Breitbart News that the strategy of U.S. troops supporting local forces on the ground – versus taking a direct combat role – will be “enduring.”
More U.S. forces are expected to deploy to Syria, however, where they would likely support local forces in what is expected to be a hard fight for ISIS’s de facto capital.
The Trump administration is also reviewing whether to get rid of limits set by the Obama administration on the numbers of U.S. troops who are authorized to deploy to Iraq and Syria.
The Obama administration had placed strict caps on the number of U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Syria, in an effort to keep troop numbers as low as possible. Currently, 5,262 are authorized for Iraq, and 503 troops for Syria. But in reality, there were hundreds more deployed on a “temporary” basis that weren’t counted, making those numbers misleading.
“In the previous administration, the secretary had to check very often with the White House, and the president, to deploy forces, especially if they were bumping up the cap,” Spoehr said.
Commanders also complained that the troop caps led to the deployment of only parts of a unit, forcing them to rely on contractors abroad for logistical support and waste taxpayer dollars.
In Afghanistan, there has been a 270-percent increase in airstrikes under Trump – from 54 in January to 200 in February – the largest increase in at least six years.
Recently, Army Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, U.S. commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, ordered the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S.’s arsenal – nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs,” or MOAB – to root out a complex of tunnels and caves in Afghanistan used by the ISIS’s affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan.
U.S. military officials said no new authorities were granted for the bombing, which fell within Nicholson’s existing authorities to order strikes against ISIS since January 2016. Current and former defense officials recently told The New York Times that he would probably have checked with his superiors under Obama.
The senior White House official gone are the days of the last administration when tactical decisions — from positioning ships to whether an A-10 attack fighter jet could strike or not — were being made by National Security Council staffers.
Former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates both lambasted the micromanagement military commanders faced from the NSC under Obama. In his memoir Duty, Gates famously wrote about discovering a direct phone line from a White House staffer to a special operations command center in Afghanistan, and immediately ordering it to be ripped out.
“It’s the micromanagement that disappeared… the informal political things that were laid on top,” the senior White House official said.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, praised the new approach.
“I think we long-expected this president to be a delegator, that essentially being a businessman, his approach was that he was going to find excellent people, and give them their portfolios, especially given that the president himself didn’t have vast knowledge in the area of defense and foreign policy,” he said.
“That was never, I think, his forte, so the idea that he would delegate to experts seems to be a very wise decision.”
He also praised Nicholson’s decision to drop the MOAB on ISIS, which he said sent a message to all of the U.S.’s other adversaries.
“I think it’s important that [Trump] trusts them in their ability to deliver these sorts of strategic messages,” he said.
And Spoehr, who served as deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2011, said allowing commanders to do their jobs has been a huge morale boost for the military.
“I think, in nearly every dimension, you can see a noticeable difference, that things have ratcheted-up… a little bit more spring in people’s step, little bit of a fire in people’s eyes,” he said.
The senior White House official agreed: “Morale is so much higher.”