Trump gives more control of military ops to Pentagon

He believes White House should focus more on strategic issues

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump is shifting more authority over military operations to the Pentagon, according to White House officials, reversing what his aides and some generals say was a tendency by the Obama White House to micromanage issues better left to military commanders.

The change is at the heart of a re-engineering of the role of the National Security Council (NSC) under its new leader, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, and reflects Mr Trump's belief that the NSC should focus less on military operations and tactics and more on strategic issues.

A guiding precept for the President and his team is that the balance of power in the world has shifted against US interests, and that Lt-Gen McMaster should focus on developing foreign and economic policy options in concert with the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies to respond to that challenge.

The new approach was evident this month when a Marine artillery battery and a team of Army Rangers - some 400 troops in all - arrived in northern Syria.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis signed off on the deployments and notified the White House. But Lt-Gen McMaster neither convened a meeting at the White House to discuss whether to send the forces nor questioned the Pentagon about where, precisely, the troops would operate or what risks they might confront.

Though the streamlined decision-making has been welcomed by many in the military, it could raise questions about whether Mr Trump is exercising sufficient oversight. He has already drawn criticism for being quick to approve the military's plans to carry out a raid in Yemen in January that led to the death of one commando and several civilians.

Mr Trump is expected to soon approve a Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on Special Operations air strikes and raids in parts of Somalia to target suspected militants with al-Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda. Critics say the change... bypasses rules seeking to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks and commando operations.

But while it still expects the White House to be consulted, the Trump administration is prepared to give the Pentagon more leeway in deploying forces than the Obama administration, which feared being drawn into a quagmire, as well as suffered strains with the military that went back to 2009 deliberations over Afghanistan strategy.

The Trump administration is also embracing an Obama-era strategy from Yemen and Syria to Central Africa, to minimise the US military's footprint overseas, by relying on Special Operations forces to intensify its promised fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as well as other terrorist groups.

Mr Trump is expected to soon approve a Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on Special Operations air strikes and raids in parts of Somalia to target suspected militants with al-Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda.

Critics say the change - one of the few rejections of president Barack Obama's guidelines for elite forces - bypasses rules seeking to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks and commando operations.

But in their two months in office, Trump officials have shown few other signs that they want to back away from Mr Obama's strategy to train, equip and otherwise support indigenous armies and security forces to fight their own wars, instead of having to deploy large US forces.

"Africans are at war; we're not," said Colonel Kelly Smith, a Green Beret commander who was a director of a counter-terrorism exercise in Chad this month, involving African and Western troops and trainers. "But we have a strategic interest in the success of partners."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Trump gives more control of military ops to Pentagon'. Print Edition | Subscribe