MARA, Chad — From Yemen to Syria to here in Central Africa, the Trump administration is relying on special operations forces to intensify its promised fight against the Islamic State group and other terrorist groups as senior officials embrace an Obama-era strategy to minimize the U.S. military's footprint overseas.
In Africa, President Donald Trump is expected to soon approve a Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on special operations airstrikes and raids in parts of Somalia to target suspected militants with al-Shabab, an extremist group linked to al-Qaida. Critics say that the change — in one of the few rejections of President Barack Obama's guidelines for the elite forces — would bypass rules that seek 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 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 U.S. forces to far-flung hot spots.
"Africans are at war; we're not," said Col. Kelly Smith, 47, a Green Beret commander who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a director of a counterterrorism exercise in Chad this month involving about 2,000 African and Western troops and trainers. "But we have a strategic interest in the success of partners."
Trump came to office without a clearly articulated philosophy for using the military to fight terrorist groups. He had promised to be more aggressive in taking on the Islamic State — even suggesting during the presidential campaign that he had a secret plan — but had also signaled a desire to rein in the notion of the United States as the world's peacekeeper and claimed at various points to have opposed the ground invasion of Iraq.
Now, surrounded by generals who have been at the center of a decadelong shift to rely on special operations forces to project power without the risks and costs of large ground wars, he is choosing to maintain the same approach but giving the Pentagon more latitude.
That leeway carries its own perils. Last week, the Pentagon went to unusual lengths to defend an airstrike in Syria that U.S. officials said killed dozens of al-Qaida operatives at a meeting place — and not civilians at a mosque, as activists and local residents maintain.
It was yet another example of the mixed success Trump's forays with special operators have had so far. An ill-fated raid in January by the Navy's SEAL Team 6 against al-Qaida fighters in Yemen marred the president's first counterterrorism mission, five days after he became commander in chief. In Mosul, however, special operations advisers are the U.S. troops closest to the fight in Iraq to oust the Islamic State group from its stronghold there. That is also likely to be the case in the impending battle to reclaim Raqqa in eastern Syria.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Trump is largely relying on the policies of his two immediate predecessors, Obama and President George W. Bush, who were also great advocates of special operations forces. On Obama's orders, SEAL Team 6 commandos killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan in 2011.
But Trump seems to have taken that appreciation and reliance to another level. He appointed a retired Marine Corps general, Jim Mattis, as defense secretary, and a three-star Army officer, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as his national security adviser. Both men have extensive experience with special operations forces. And the National Security Council's new senior director for counterterrorism, Christopher P. Costa, is a retired Special Forces intelligence officer.
Sharing an unusual window into the private conversations between Trump and his senior commanders, Army Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said the president had made clear his urgent priority for counterterrorism missions conducted by the military's elite forces during a visit to military headquarters at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base last month.
"There were some pretty pointed questions about what winning looks like, and how are you going to get there," Thomas told a special operations conference outside Washington after the presidential visit.
And while the Pentagon could eventually send a few thousand more conventional troops to the fights in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, Thomas warned that senior commanders feared that "more troops on the ground may mean you own the problem when you're done with it."
That concern gives weight to arguments for greater reliance on special operators as the Trump administration for now eschews larger deployments of conventional troops and proposes deep cuts in foreign aid and State Department budgets.
The global reach of special operators is widening. During the peak of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 13,000 special operations forces were deployed on missions across the globe, but a large majority were assigned to those two countries. Now, more than half of the 8,600 elite troops overseas are posted outside the Middle East or South Asia, operating in 97 countries, according to SOCom.
Still, about one-third of the 6,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq and Syria are special operators, many of whom are advising local troops and militias on the front lines. About a quarter of the 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are special operators.
In Africa, about one-third of the nearly 6,000 overall troops are special operations forces. The only permanent U.S. installation on the continent is Camp Lemonnier, a sprawling base of 4,000 U.S. service members and civilians in Djibouti that serves as a hub for counterterrorism operations and training. The U.S. Air Force flies surveillance drones from small bases in Niger and Cameroon.
Elsewhere in Africa, the roles of special operators are varied, and their ranks are small, typically measured in the low dozens for specific missions. Between 200 and 300 Navy SEALs and other special operators work with African allies to hunt shadowy al-Shabab terrorists in Somalia. As many as 100 special forces soldiers help African troops pursue the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. And Navy SEALs are training Nigerian commandos for action in the oil-rich delta.
The United States is building a $50 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, that is likely to open sometime next year to monitor Islamic State insurgents in a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad.
Trump's tough talk on terrorism has been well received here in Chad, where SOCom and military instructors from several Western nations finished an annual three-week counterterrorism training exercise last week.
Many African soldiers and security forces said they would welcome an even larger U.S. military presence to help combat myriad extremist threats. "Of course we'd like more," said Hassan Zakari Mahamadou, a police commissioner from Niger. "U.S. forces enhance us."
The Pentagon has allocated about $250 million over two years to help train the armies and security forces of North, Central and West African countries.
But U.S. aid and training alone — along with occasional secret unilateral strikes — will not be enough to defeat groups like al-Qaida, Boko Haram and the Islamic State, officials say.
"We could knock off all the ISIL and Boko Haram this afternoon," Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the leader of the military's Africa Command, told the Senate this month, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. "But by the end week, so to speak, those ranks would be filled."
Here on the outskirts of the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, last week, four flat-bottomed boats with mounted machine guns roared down the Chari River. The boats pulled up along the riverbank, just opposite neighboring Cameroon, and disgorged rifle-toting Chadian Special Anti-terrorism Group forces and their U.S. trainers.
In a hail of gunfire, shooting blanks, they stormed the thatched huts of a suspected Boko Haram bomb-maker; seized laptops, cellphones and other material inside for clues on terrorist operations; and dashed back to the river, fending off a mock ambush on the way. Piling back into their boats under covering fire, the Chadian commandos sped off in a drill that U.S. and Chadian officers often play out for real in the nearby Lake Chad Basin area.
"Extremism is like a cancer," said Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue, a senior Chadian officer who has trained in France and at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and was helping oversee the exercise. "We need to continue to fight it."