Barack Obama spent much of his tenure scaling back the high-profile “war on terror” he inherited from George W. Bush. In a few short days, President Trump has again set the U.S. on a more visible and confrontational course in dealing with the threat of terrorism.
Trump has temporarily frozen immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, igniting protests outside the White House and at airports around the country.
He’s ordered a comprehensive new plan be placed on his desk, within 30 days, on how to swiftly defeat the Islamic State.
And Sunday, the U.S. military carried out a rare ground mission inside Yemen, where an estimated 14 al-Qaida members were killed, according to the Pentagon — though other reports also cited civilian deaths. One Navy SEAL was killed and three were injured, the first military casualties during Trump’s administration.
White House officials are eager to tout what they describe as a more aggressive approach.
Trump has “hit the ground running, had a flurry of activity, to do exactly what he said he was going to do,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told ABC News’ This Week. “We’re going to protect our country and our people.”
Obama oversaw a nation at war every day of his eight-year presidency — something that had never happened before. However, he tried to deploy a small U.S. military footprint, and the limited air campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere emphasized restraint and patience.
While Trump’s policies are still taking shape, he is stressing his counterterrorism efforts even as they invite criticism. His aides say the moves are necessary because Obama wasn’t doing enough. Trump’s critics, including some Republicans, say he may be overreacting and warn about the damage to America’s image.
Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Trump’s immigration freeze “may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
A new plan for ISIS
Trump said during the presidential campaign that he had a secret plan to defeat ISIS and that he would ask the Pentagon for a new one. In a presidential memo Saturday evening, Trump took the second route. “The United States must take decisive action to defeat ISIS,” he wrote. He called for a new, comprehensive plan that would be presented to him by Defense Secretary James Mattis within a month.
It’s not clear whether this will lead to additional U.S. forces on the ground. About 6,000 Americans are assisting local fighters in Iraq and Syria. The Americans are advisers, trainers, special operators and part of the air operation, but are not front-line fighters.
Deployments of U.S. ground troops would accelerate the campaign against ISIS. But Obama rejected this approach after the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. The Americans currently in Iraq and Syria have sought to work “with, by and through” local forces rather than take the lead themselves.
Trump’s memo also asked for recommended changes to the rules of engagement “that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”
Translation: the U.S. has often called off planned airstrikes due to the possibility of civilian casualties. Trump’s memo points to the possibility of fewer restrictions and a more aggressive bombing campaign against ISIS fighters who often try to shield themselves in civilian areas.
Clearing the way for such military action in Syria and Iraq could yield more battlefield victories and speed the advance of allied forces fighting ISIS. But it could also put more American troops in danger and increase the risk to civilians.
A raid in Yemen
The raid by the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 in central Yemen was a rare instance where U.S. forces were inserted for a ground operation in the nation ravaged by civil war. The U.S. has mostly conducted drone strikes and assisted Saudi Arabia with its much larger bombing campaign.
The operation targeted a compound in Bayda Province belonging to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, considered al-Qaida’s most dangerous affiliate.
The action did not go smoothly. An V-22 Osprey aircraft carrying the special operations forces had a hard landing and was then intentionally destroyed by the Americans to keep it out of hostile hands. The White House and the military described it as a success and cited intelligence collected about possible future attacks.
NPR’s Alice Fordham cited Yemeni officials and citizens saying civilians were among those killed in the raid. They say the dead included the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the fiery American cleric and al-Qaida supporter killed in Yemen in a 2011 U.S. drone strike.
“The U.S.A. is committing crimes, you know, especially under this new administration,” Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Anwar and grandfather of the girl, told NPR. The American forces “attacked a village at midnight with women and children sleeping,” he said. “These actions really make things difficult in the world.”
The U.S. military said they take such allegations seriously, but had not opened an investigation at this stage.
In Washington, Spicer linked the Yemen operation and the immigration freeze, describing them as part of the combined efforts addressing the security threat.
“That’s why this [immigration] order is so important,” he told ABC. If troops “are going to go out there and put their lives on the line, [the government must] do our part, to make sure we’re not going to have an open door, to allow people to march right into our country.”
But critics took a different view on the possible consequences.
“There is a propaganda gift in the executive order for those who would do damage to the United States. ISIS wants nothing more than to be able to say to Muslims around the world that American doesn’t want them,” David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, told NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. “I’m afraid this executive order plays into their hands.”
Miliband said the U.S. has been highly successful in preventing extremists from entering the country, and the latest step wasn’t necessary.
“We argue that the executive order is founded on a myth – which is that there’s no security vetting. There is security vetting. It’s an average of 12 to 18 months,” Miliband said. “It’s an American success story.”
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.