Well, we are coming up to the six-month mark of the Donald Trump era and it is time for a reckoning. So much print and coverage has been devoted to the Donald that I hesitate to add to this amount. And yet there is quite a bit that bears on counter terrorism policy and strategy that I would be remiss in ignoring it. As you shall see, there is not much to celebrate. Here, then, is a mid-term report card. As Mr. Trump’s instructor in Counter Terrorism 101, I feel an obligation to act to try to help him salvage this academic year.
Just as a recent poll clearly showed that the world’s nations have less confidence in the US under Mr. Trump, with the notable exception of Russia (this should tell us something), the new administration has been embroiled in what seem to be daily scandals and crises, some of which are its own making (and many of which seem to rise after the Commander-in-Chief tweets at 3 AM). As a result, Mr. Trump seems to be lacking in attention span and dedication to his studies. On the counter terrorism front his decisions taken to date are either ill-considered, bizarre or too early to judge. Herewith an example of each.
In the ill-considered category lies a decision by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to strip funding from a civil society group that counters neo-Nazi and far-right violence and violent rhetoric. Life After Hate had seen requests for assistance skyrocket since last year. This is not surprising in that the US has seen a rise in this vile world view ever since President Obama’s first election back in 2008 and groups of this ilk not only welcomed a Trump presidency but has had some of their members brought in as advisors to the new president. The cut in funds is part of an alarming trend by this government which obviously sees no value in CVE (countering violent extremism). This attitude is both shortsighted and will lead to more problems down the road.
Moving on to bizarre, the US Supreme Court has allowed a scaled-down version of Mr. Trump’s immigration ban. Not only is the decision clearly Islamophobic, as the President himself admitted while still a candidate, but it has essentially no effect on national security since not one single terrorist attack has been executed by an immigrant from the banned countries. To wit, a truly odd decision. Perhaps supplementary reading on the US Constitution would help here.
Finally, two other moves by the Trump administration are too early to judge. First is the decision to allow the Pentagon to send upwards of 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. That country is headed in a bad direction, what with a resurgent Taliban and a rising Islamic State affiliate, and although doing nothing is probably not an option it is far from clear what more troops will accomplish that far greater numbers were unable to achieve over 15 years. Secondly is the choice to arm Syrian Kurds to aid in their assault on the IS stronghold of Raqqa. Not only does arming a proxy force have a mixed record historically (remember when we provisioned a bunch of guys called the ‘Afghan Arabs’ who later became Al Qaeda?), but backing the Kurds, who are going to hold a referendum on sovereignty this fall, will really piss off the Turks and the Iraqis, both of whom are supposed to be on our side in all this and who could make life difficult for any future CT operations. An overview of military strategy may be in order.
The only viable conclusion to draw at the mid-year point is that the Trump team is in danger of failing Counter Terrorism 101. Immediate remedial work is strongly advised with supplementary courses in recent history and community contributions to CVE. If this recommended action is not taken it is likely that Mr. Trump will have to retake this course next year, assuming that there is still a course to teach.