Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford, second from left, and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top ISIS war commander, meet with Iraqi chief of defense Lt. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimi, in Baghdad, Nov 9, 2016.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford, second from left, and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top ISIS war commander, meet with Iraqi chief of defense Lt. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimi, in Baghdad, Nov 9, 2016. DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen

As Trump Waits, So Do US War Fighters, Planners

The truth is nobody from the Pentagon to Baghdad knows yet if Trump will escalate or withdraw from America's ongoing fights around the world.

With President-elect Donald Trump about to become commander in chief, America has not seen this many questions around U.S. national security policy since the late 1960s, if ever. And if there is one thing that challenges war planning it is uncertainty.  

Because whether we like to discuss it or not, America is at war. And even after a two-year election campaign, nobody knows where President Trump will steer those fights or if he’ll even continue them. 

The president-elect is preparing to arrive in Washington while Americans in uniform are continuing to deploy to battlefields in Iraq and Syria, and Afghanistan, and fight in even lesser watched places like Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, the Philippines, and Indonesia. And no one working on U.S. foreign and national security policy at this moment can tell you what comes next.

Will America’s anti-Islamic State mission in Iraq continue? How much of a role will the U.S. play in figuring out key governance questions in Mosul and elsewhere once the Islamic State, or ISIS, is routed? How will the Trump administration navigate tensions between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces as the fight to retake Raqqah builds? How about the overall special operations mission in Syria? Does “advise and assist” have a future? What about U.S. troops in Afghanistan? Will they stay or go? Will America continue to fight ISIS in Libya?

The truth is, no one in the Pentagon knows. And it all could change in just two months. 

As a candidate, Donald Trump campaigned on ending nation-building and increasing bombing against ISIS, warming relations with Russia, and closer contact with Egypt. He ran on knowing more than “the generals” and on rethinking Obama’s strategy of supporting some Syrian opposition fighters in the battle against Assad. He also argued for scrapping the nuclear deal the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, a key of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

As much as many are scouring the coffee grinds of his past pronouncements to divine the future of American foreign policy, few can tell you what these campaign statements mean when translated into actual policy. At the moment, there are many good questions and far fewer solid answers. In April Trump said America must “as, a nation, be more unpredictable.” Right now America seems to be living up to this pronounced imperative.

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This past Tuesday, speaking to the New York Times, Trump said “we have to end that craziness that's going on in Syria” and that when it comes to the conflict, he has a "different view than everybody else.”

What does that mean? To end the war will Trump bring America closer to Russian policy, supporting Vladimir Putin and Assad in his search for a negotiation?

What about Iraq and Syria post-war, and using non-military means to curtail conflict? Nation-building is a fourteen-letter word that now has become a four-letter word, an uncertainty of its own. Trump’s unknown views leave thousands of America’s military, intelligence, and contractor communities, aid workers, and diplomats in limbo. 

For foreign policy watchers, America is now facing greater policy uncertainty that at any time in recent history. Former intelligence leaders write openly of having no record to decipher. Military officials now charged with carrying out Syria policy say they have no idea whether the next administration will accelerate the mission in Syria by deploying additional U.S. special operations forces or regular ground troops, or put the brakes on the whole thing and pivot toward Putin.

“The closest I have come to this is ’68, ’69,” said James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and to Turkey. “This guy is a totally unknown unknown.”

What is clear is the number of decisions up ahead for the president-elect.

Trump’s foreign policy orientation has crossed traditional policy boundaries until now. The question is whether it will grow clearer, more predictable, less volatile, and more decipherable as January arrives and his time as commander in chief begins.

“In terms of foreign policy it is up for grabs,” Jeffrey says.

Stay tuned.