The Problem With Trump's Terrorism Strategy? Trump

(Bloomberg View) -- One constant of Donald Trump’s roller-coaster presidency is the tendency for his self-generated controversies to drown out discussion of more substantive issues. Case in point: By criticizing the widow of an American service member slain in sub-Saharan Africa this month, Trump has initiated another spat with a Gold Star family as well as a low-grade crisis in civil-military affairs.

Yet the tragedy in Niger, in which three other Americans and five Nigeriens were killed, is also emblematic of a wider set of challenges the administration confronts as it seeks to intensify the global war on terror.

A crucial caveat: We still do not know precisely what happened in Niger, and so any conclusions about that event are necessarily tentative. What has undoubtedly emerged under Trump, though, is a broader pattern in which the administration and the U.S. military seek greater payoffs in the long struggle against jihadist terror groups -- but are incurring greater risks in the process.

The military component of Trump’s counterterrorism strategy is not fundamentally different than what President Barack Obama pursued in the final stages of his administration. Both employed what is essentially a “medium-footprint” approach, one that aggressively targets the most dangerous terrorist organizations with modest numbers of U.S. boots on the ground, but eschews the heavy-footprint nation-building missions undertaken at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where Trump has changed U.S. strategy is by being more aggressive on the margin of this basic approach.

The administration has sent additional U.S. forces (including ground troops) to combat zones in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan; it intends for American advisers to be more active in accompanying local partner forces into the field. Likewise, the Pentagon has leaned forward in carrying out special-forces operations and other raids in Yemen and elsewhere; it has sought to intensify air strikes and special operations against groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia. The White House has also reportedly expanded military targeting authorities in various war-on-terrorism hot spots and delegated responsibility down the chain of command, to enable increased responsiveness and agility by U.S. forces in the field. It is not true, as Trump recently claimed, that he has revolutionized U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism -- but he has incrementally intensified that approach.

This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. As Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council staffer, and I have written elsewhere, a strategy that avoids nation-building but relentlessly targets the most capable terrorist organizations -- including through training and advise-and-assist missions like the one U.S. forces are carrying out in Africa's Sahel region -- is arguably the best approach to keeping groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their allies and affiliates off balance at a tolerable price.

Indeed, it is hard to identify any other strategy that holds as much promise of suppressing -- albeit not conclusively defeating -- the decentralized and persistent threat posed by these groups without a far greater commitment of American blood and treasure. And as even former Obama-era officials have acknowledged, the White House’s insistence on maintaining tight control over military operations was not always productive.

The trouble, however, is that Trump's approach entails three distinct dilemmas of its own.

First, a more aggressive strategy means that U.S. forces must take greater operational and tactical risks -- especially in "economy-of-force" theaters such as sub-Saharan Africa -- and this inevitably heightens the chances that some of them will get hurt or killed. This dynamic is, of course, painful and tragic in its own right, as we have seen in recent days. It also places a heightened premium a president's role as explainer-in-chief -- the leader who articulates, soberly and compassionately, what missions the military is undertaking and why the sacrifices involved are worth bearing.

Second, this approach increases the likelihood that U.S. commanders will make tactical decisions that may have far broader strategic or political consequences. This was precisely why Obama centralized control of military decision-making so tightly. Indeed, we have already seen instances under Trump in which far-away commanders have authorized actions that might easily have had, or were perceived to have, broader ramifications.

The most notable such event was the downing of a Syrian regime jet that was menacing U.S.-supported forces in June -- which raised the risk of confrontation with Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons. There was also the use of the so-called Mother of All Bombs against Islamic State forces in Afghanistan, which some (wrongly) saw as sending a message to North Korea. Such episodes are sure to become more common in a more decentralized campaign.

Third, Trump’s approach increases the importance of timely and meaningful consultation with Congress -- particularly on issues like where U.S. troops are deployed, what they are doing, and what level of risk they are running. If that communication is absent, Trump risks encountering some very awkward questions when American troops are injured or killed. This is precisely what is happening this week, as the administration catches flak even from senators disposed to be strongly supportive of a robust counterterrorism strategy. To borrow an old adage, Congress will want to be in on the takeoff, if the administration expects it to be supportive when there is a crash landing.

This is where Trump’s failings come into play, because so far he has given little indication that he is capable of managing any of these challenges. The president’s performance in what is, remarkably, only his most recent rhetorical confrontation with a grieving military family indicates that he is temperamentally unsuited to playing his necessary role as explainer-in-chief. One worries, too, that an administration so disorganized and understaffed will have great difficulty keeping ahead of the potential strategic and political ramifications of tactical aggressiveness.

Not least, this president and his subordinates have too often been models of opacity rather than transparency when it comes to dealings with Congress. One suspects that here, the president’s understandable desire to avoid telegraphing U.S. punches is coming at a cost in terms of building the congressional support necessary to sustain this approach.

When Senator John McCain repeatedly slams the administration for failing to provide the necessary information on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and other theaters, and when his equally hawkish colleague Lindsey Graham remarks that he had no idea that there were 800 U.S. troops in Niger, one can be sure that the administration has a congressional-relations problem on its hands.

Trump’s counterterrorism strategy may have its virtues, then, but whether this administration -- and this president -- can successfully navigate its inherent challenges remains to be seen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

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