A new era is opening almost by stealth. Its defining feature is a military expansion, ordered by the United States president and conducted by the Pentagon. Underlying it is Trump’s fusion of elements from the strategy of his two predecessors, George W Bush and Barack Obama.
A recent, low-profile Pentagon document gives a hint of the US’s current projection of military power:
The U.S. has 8,892 forces in Iraq, 15,298 troops in Afghanistan and 1,720 in Syria, for a total of 25,910 troops serving in the three war zones as of Sept. 30, according to DoD. The figures were released to the public Nov. 17 as part of DoD’s quarterly count of active duty, Reserve, Guard and civilian personnel assigned by country by the Defense Manpower Data Center” (see Tara Copp, “26,000 troops total..”, Military Times, 27 November 2017).
The total figure alone is much higher than previous numbers. But by itself, it is misleading in that the United States Defense Department normally excludes two further categories of troops: those rotating for short periods and, of far greater significance, many of the special forces. These are waging much of the combat in all three theatres – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. That means the true number is probably close to, or even over, 30,000. To this could be added troops involved in operations across the Sahel, Somalia or Yemen.
A new era is opening almost by stealth. Its defining feature is a military expansion, ordered by the United States president and conducted by the Pentagon.
Such indicators give only part of the picture. Another is a Pentagon request for $143 million to expand its operations at the Azraq base in the Jordanian desert, the largest single overseas financial commitment now being considered. This base has been key to operations in Syria and Iraq, and been used by other states including the Netherlands and Belgium. So just as the wars in Iraq and Syria are supposed to be winding down after ISIS’s much-vaunted defeat, the Pentagon wants to go the other way and prepare for yet more conflict in the region. A growth in overseas bases, such as a huge one for surveillance drones costing $100 million in Niger, fits the trend.
All this must be seen in the perspective of the sixteen years of “war on terror.” Again, troop numbers are a signal if not the whole story. In 2007-08, at the height of George W Bush’s campaigns, close to 200,000 US troops were in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as Barack Obama started to withdraw troops from Iraq, he was “surging” them in Afghanistan: an extra 30,000 troops by 2011 took the US total in that country to around 100,000.
That short-term policy failed in its aim of forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table, and most troops had been withdrawn by the end of his second term in 2012. In parallel, Obama was moving rapidly towards “remote warfare“. This relied much more on strike-aircraft, armed-drones, and special forces – all involving far fewer “boots on the ground”.
Now, the Trump wars era brings a reconfiguration: plenty of remote warfare and far more military personnel abroad. Bush was all about crushing al-Qaida and similar groups, as well as regime termination; Obama moved more towards “shadow wars” at a much lower intensity, if still controversial. Trump, in combining these, is going back to the future.
President Donald Trump greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as he arrives at the White House, Monday, April 3, 2017, in Washington. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Destroy your opponents; forget the sixteen years of failed wars; do not try to understand where these enemies are coming from, and why they retain support. If these tenets guide Trump’s approach, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime has followed them in Egypt’s arena.
The Trump wars era brings a reconfiguration: plenty of remote warfare and far more military personnel abroad.
Since al-Sisi became president after ousting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, his forces have pursued a tough line against any kind of religious-based dissent. The Islamist-linked rebellion in northern Sinai was a prime target. The terrible attack on the Al-Rawda mosque in northern Sinai on 24 November, which killed 305 people, is the latest incident in this escalating conflict. The immediate response to the massacre was air-raids by strike-aircraft, which the insurgents would have expected and taken precautions against.
But the problems in Sinai go much deeper than al-Sisi’s policies, damaging as these are. This part of Egypt has long been neglected and marginalized. Its younger men are particularly angry that the oil and tourism industries bring local communities little or no benefit. Thus, the now dispersed ISIS leadership see al-Sisi’s Egypt in general and Sinai in particular as fertile ground. For the movement, Cairo’s policy of hardline suppression could hardly be better. An objective view of Sinai’s recent decades suggests that the chances of Sisi’s approach working are close to zero.
So the comparison works in reverse. For al-Sisi, read Trump – on a much bigger scale. This may still be an early stage of the Trump wars era. An increase in the worst excesses of the post-9/11, such as rendition and torture, can be expected as problems multiply. Clear indications of new thinking remain scarce. “Liddism” still rules. It is better to be prepared for the long haul.
Top photo | U.S. Marines prepare to build a military site in western Anbar, Iraq. The US’ newest outpost is in this dusty corner of western Iraq near the border with Syria where several hundred American Marines operate close to the battlefront, Nov 7, 2017. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
Paul Rogers is a professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010).
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