Trump vs. the Generals

As president, he says he would create a Syrian safe zone and swiftly draft a plan to defeat ISIS 'fast.' Here are the flag officers who say: not so fast.

Donald Trump famously, if implausibly, declared that he “knows more than the generals do” about ISIS, and that he would, as president, move quickly to defeat the group. How? Well, he says revealing details would only help ISIS raise its defenses. But it’s possible to compare what the GOP nominee has said, including at the first presidential debate on Monday, with what various actual military leaders believe.

At least several of these generals, should Trump be elected, may be looking for new jobs. In a Sept. 6 speech in Philadelphia, he vowed to meet with “my top generals and give them a simple instruction: They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS. We have no choice. Any nation who shares in this goal will be our friend in this mission.” The following day, NBC News’ Matt Lauer asked Trump about it, saying “You’re going to convene a panel of generals, and you’ve already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do.”

Trump replied, “Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you… I have great faith in the military. I have great faith in certain of the commanders, certainly. But I have no faith in Hillary Clinton or the leadership,” under which, “the generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country.”

Here’s what some of the most senior U.S. generals say about military issues that have attracted Trump’s interest in his counter-Islamic State war plans.


On defeating ISIS

Trump (Nov. 18, 2015): “We’ve got to get rid of ISIS quickly, quickly. Not for a long time. Let me tell you what I really want to do. I want to get other people to put troops on the ground and we’ll back them up 100 percent.”

Trump (Sept. 6, 2016): “Immediately after taking office, I will ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS. This will require military warfare, but also cyber warfare, financial warfare, and ideological warfare.”

Trump (Sept. 26, 2016): “I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and we have to do it fast.”

Adm. Michael Rogers, U.S. Cyber Command and NSA (March 11, 2016): “Are we making gains on the ground against ISIL in Syria and Iraq? Yes. Are we comfortable that where we are is where we need to be? No. Have we stopped ISIL’s ability to generate attacks, threats on a global basis? No…But when you get into this idea of ‘winning and losing,’ I’m always leery of — I don’t think that’s really the way to think about this problem, because it tries to make it a binary…The goal is to attempt to dismantle and destroy ISIL.”

Gen. Raymond Thomas, U.S. Special Operations Command (March 9, 2016): “Over a decade ago, when we first addressed the al-Qaeda problem, when it first blossomed, there was a stated concern that if we’re too successful, they might go somewhere else. It’s the ‘squeezed balloon’ analogy. In fact, I think that’s what’s happened. They have moved to ungoverned spaces — Libya, specifically.”

Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff  (April 7, 2016): The U.S. is “not exactly winning yet. The caliphate has to be destroyed, ISIS has to be destroyed, and they’ve also chosen to displace some of their forces into Libya and elsewhere, and they’ve counterattacked into Europe. This is a tough fight and it’s by no means over yet. And no one should be dancing in the end zone yet. There’s a long way to go here.”

Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command (Aug. 30, 2016): “We should expect that as we come out of the big operations like Mosul and Raqqa and others here, that they will continue to adapt and we will continue to deal with the next evolution of ISIL, whether they become more of a terrorist organization and return to more of their terrorist-like roots, but I think we are thinking very hard about how we—with the coalition and with our Iraqi and ultimately with our partners in Syria, how we look at continuing to keep the pressure on ISIL after we complete these major operations….We’ve certainly got to address what’s happening in Iraq and Syria, but that’s not sufficient. We’ve got to look much broader at all of our efforts to address the threat that they pose trans-regionally, as well as in this particular area.”

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (September 22, 2016), on Trump’s “anyone fighting ISIS is our ally” approach: “Chairman, I do not believe it would be a good idea to share intelligence with the Russians.”


On creating a ‘safe zone’ in Syria

Trump (November 16, 2015): “In Syria, take a big swatch of land, which believe me, you get for the right price, okay? You take a big swatch and you don’t destroy all of Europe…They’re gonna learn all these different languages. It’s ridiculous.”

Trump (March 26, 2016): “What I would do is this: We could lead it, but I would get the Gulf states and others to put up the money. I mean Germany should put up money…You have people leaving the country, permanently leaving the country. You have tremendous crime, you have tremendous, you know, you read the same stories that I do. You write them, actually, it’s even better. So you have tremendous problems over there but I do believe in building a safe zone, a number of safe zones, in sections of Syria and that when this war, this horrible war, is over people can go back and rebuild if they want to and I would have the Gulf states finance it because they have the money and they should finance it.”

Gen. Dunford (Sept. 22, 2016): “Right now, senator, for us to control all of the airspace in Syria it would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going make.”

Votel, shooting down the idea of a no-fly zone (March 9, 2016): Responding to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., Votel said, “Mr. Chairman, reluctantly, my answer is no.”

Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman, Gen. Paul Selva (December 9, 2015): “We have the capacity to do this; we have not recommended [that we do so] because the political situation on the ground and the potential for miscalculation, and loss of American life in the air in an attempt to defend the no-fly zone, do not warrant the no-fly zone, given the fact that on the ground, the forces would still contest the safe zone on the ground.”

Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force Chief of Staff, said a no-fly zone would mean war with Russia (June 16, 2016): “There are three fundamental questions that I think have to be answered before I would ever recommend that as an option. The first is I would have to have the authority to shoot down and kill anybody who violated a no-fly zone. Since ISIL doesn’t have an Air Force, that would mean I would have to have the authority to shoot down and kill Russian or Syrian aircraft. The second is I would have to have a clear understanding of exactly what the objective was on the ground below the no-fly zone. And if the objective was to do humanitarian safe zone or refugee return, that would require some indigenous ground force that I would have been able to control that because I can’t control that from the air. And the third would be a clear-eyed decision that I would have to divert resources from the current campaign to do the no-fly zone.”


On increased U.S. action

Trump (November 13, 2015):ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because of the oil that they took away, they have some in Syria, they have some in Iraq, I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers, and that’s right, I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left. And you know what, you’ll get Exxon to come in there, and in two months, you ever see these guys? How good they are, the great oil companies, they’ll rebuild it brand new…And I’ll take the oil.”

Trump (August 10, 2015): “Every place where they [ISIS] have oil, I would knock the hell out of them, and I would put sold—I would put boots on the ground in those areas. I would take the oil…I would knock out the source of their wealth, the primary sources of their wealth, which is oil. And in order to do that, you would have to put boots on—I would knock the hell out of them, but I’d put a ring around it and I’d take the oil for our country.”

Trump (March 10, 2016): “I would listen to the generals, but I would—I’m hearing numbers of 20 to 30,000. We have to knock them out fast.”

Trump (July 9, 2016): Or maybe not:  “I won’t send many troops because you won’t need ’em by the time I got finished… I’d go to the top 5 oil companies, they’d be in there finished so fast…You put a ring [of U.S. troops] around them” — the oil companies working in reconstruction efforts.

(For what it’s worth: State Secretary John Kerry said in February maintaining a safe zone in northern Syria would take between 15,000 and 30,000 ground troops. As of August, roughly 5,000 American troops are in-country fighting ISIS.)

The military reaction: This one’s going to be a bit trickier because (1) officers are tied to both the Constitution and by extension, the orders of the president; though, of course, their job is to offer their best military advice, the advice is often within very real constraints on how the presidency views American power—see “Bush Doctrine,” “Obama doctrine,” etc.; see also the recent marching orders on China. This means for ISIS, in Obama’s case, there have been incremental increases in U.S. troops since the war started in August 2014—with Wednesday’s announcement of an additional roughly 600, bringing the total to nearly 5,000 American troops fighting ISIS in various ways. And (2) the situation is frequently fluid in war, to speak generally, and in Syria perhaps more than any other in recent memory. With this is mind, see, for example, Anthony Cordesman’s take on the “end state fallacy.” Here’s Adm. Rogers on the fluidity of the ISIS battlefield, to Charlie Rose: “You have to be capable of looking at multiple problem sets simultaneously, and what’s important today won’t necessarily have the same level of priority that it does six months from now.”

Dunford on Mosul: Iraq’s troop levels are sufficient (Sept. 22, 2016): “We assessed today the Iraqis will have, in early October, all the forces marshaled, trained, fielded and equipped that are necessary for operations in Mosul.”

Dunford on Raqqa (Sept. 22, 2016): “We do have sufficient…forces to be able to secure and seize Raqqa…The reason why I support the [Syrian Democratic Forces] is: my No. 1 priority is to stop the planning and conducting of external operations…We have a plan [to hold Raqqa]. It is not resourced…Should the President change the policy objectives, we’ll be prepared to support those.” (Note: Dunford said SDF has 14,000 Arab fighters in an overall anti-ISIS force of some 30,000, including Kurds and Turkmens.)

Thomas, on U.S.-backed forces in Syria (March 9, 2016): “I’m actually quite pleased with the progress that we’ve made, especially recently through several of the circuit forces that we’ve able to develop in northeastern Syria specifically… Ultimately, I think we’re making progress through these surrogates.”

Selva, on claims the military is “holding back” in the war on ISIS (Dec. 9, 2015): “Senator, I haven’t met a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who wouldn’t ask for looser [rules of engagement] in any active fight, but having consulted with the commanders from the JTF [Joint Task Force] all the way up to Central Command, I know of no rules-of-engagement restrictions that have prevented us from striking targets and that prevented our forces from being as effective as they can be on the ground.”

Milley on the limits of special forces’ ability to save the day, or as Trump’s has suggested, help procure the oil (April 7, 2016): “It’s a myth out there. It’s very prevalent. Special forces has huge talents, love it to death, and they can do a lot of things. But winning wars in of themselves, not capable.” (Note: Milley’s further remarks on common misunderstandings about the utility of special operations forces is useful reading.)

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