Ministers from the 68-nation U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group meet in Washington on Wednesday to hear more about U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to destroy the jihadists’ remaining strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Trump has ordered his generals to craft an accelerated strategy to “eradicate” the group’s so-called caliphate, and allied partners are keen to learn more at the daylong ministerial-level discussion.
The meeting at the State Department also allows Trump’s discreet secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to emerge from the shadows and stamp his authority on the diplomatic side of the joint effort. But Trump’s plan to slash 28 percent from the State Department’s budget for diplomacy and foreign aid suggests fewer resources for post-conflict stabilization—a proposal that has raised eyebrows.
European diplomats told AFP they expect Washington to reaffirm its commitment to a longer-term plan to secure the region after a battlefield victory.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington just ahead of the talks, and said victory against I.S. was within sight if allies stick together. “We are proving that Daesh can be killed, can be eliminated,” Abadi told an invited audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace, using the group’s Arabic acronym. “We shouldn’t lose focus, we shouldn’t give Daesh a second chance.”
Shortly after taking office in late January, Trump gave the Pentagon 30 days to review progress in the anti-I.S. fight and develop a comprehensive plan to “totally obliterate” the group.
As a candidate Trump frequently bemoaned how long then president Barack Obama was taking to get the job done—and claimed to have a secret plan to finish I.S. He never offered details and so far has largely stuck with Obama’s strategy, which centers on U.S.-led or guided forces carrying out continual surveillance and strikes on jihadist targets, while training and equipping local forces to conduct ground combat and hold seized terrain.
Trump has made some notable tweaks, including granting commanders broader authority to make battlefield decisions.
Military officers had complained of micromanagement under Obama, but critics worry the military may now lean toward actions with a greater likelihood of civilian deaths, such as a botched January raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL and multiple women and children. The Pentagon is also investigating allegations that a strike it launched on a suspected Al Qaeda target near a mosque in northern Syria killed dozens of civilians.
Last month, the Pentagon gave Trump an initial draft of its revised anti-I.S. plan.
Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said the document would “inform” Wednesday’s diplomatic discussions, and feedback from coalition partners would be integrated.
On Oct. 17 last year, coalition-backed Iraqi troops launched an offensive to retake Mosul from the I.S. group’s so-called caliphate. By Feb. 19 they had cleared the East bank of the Tigris and had begun to push into jihadist strongholds on the West. They have suffered heavy casualties but continue to progress.
Meanwhile, the jihadists’ “capital” in Syria is increasingly isolated, but planning for its recapture has been complicated by the diplomatic and political situation in the country. The Pentagon is backing an alliance of local Kurdish and Arab militias to take the city, but Turkey has its own rebel force in the region and Russia is backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The United States does not want to commit too many of its own troops to the fight—despite plans to more than double its own 850-strong contingent in the country and add artillery units.