President-elect Donald Trump has said he will give his generals 30 days after he takes office to come up with a plan to soundly defeat the Islamic State.
What will it look like?
There's not a lot to go on, since he has been short on specifics. Trump has said he would ramp up the war against the radical militant group, but avoid getting the United States into a Middle East quagmire. He has not advocated using large numbers of U.S. ground troops to do the fighting.
He also has said he will keep details of the plan secret, something he has faulted the Obama administration for failing to do — and ruining the element of surprise.
But Trump has talked enough about the subject to draw some conclusions about how he might change U.S. policy in its war against the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.
He may first look for ways to ramp up the U.S. bombing campaign against the militants in Syria and Iraq. “I’m going to bomb the s--- out of them,” Trump said last year.
That description may not fit with military doctrine, but he could ask his generals to look for ways to expand the air campaign in Syria and Iraq.
The U.S.-led coalition has developed very precise bombing to avoid civilian casualties. Airstrikes have to be cleared by top-ranking officers.
The Pentagon has said it would not carry out bombing that risks civilian lives, but some analysts believe a more aggressive campaign could be implemented while avoiding civilian casualties.
David Deptula, a retired three-star general, has long advocated a stronger air campaign. “The administration approach is to do the minimal amount, just to be able to say they’ve done something,” he said earlier this year.
Since then, the air campaign has been broadened somewhat, and military planners have targeted the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure in Syria, in addition to attacking fighters and individual terrorist leaders.
One danger in intensifying the air campaign: If allies fear the action poses a greater risk to civilians they might drop out. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric has at times made allies nervous.
Currently, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Britain fly alongside American warplanes over Syria.
The allies don’t participate as much as U.S. aircraft, but the White House views their participation as important in giving the campaign international legitimacy.
Another big change: The Trump administration could join with Russia in fighting militants in Syria.
The Obama administration has declined to coordinate with Russia’s military, which is launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. The Pentagon has said Russia is more interested in supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad than it is in targeting the Islamic State. As a result, the Pentagon has complained that some Russian strikes have targeted U.S.-backed rebels fighting Assad's forces.
The Trump administration may attempt a more pragmatic approach that tolerates Assad as long at his regime targets the Islamic State militants.
“I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said during one of the presidential debates.
Any coordination with Russia or Assad would worry the Pentagon, which accuses Russian and Syrian forces of slaughtering civilians. U.S. commanders have expressed concerns about sharing intelligence and other information with forces that are indiscriminate in their bombing campaigns.
Trump may choose new commanders more in sync with his approach. He has at times been dismissive of the U.S. military’s leadership, suggesting some are political stooges. He said the generals have been “reduced to rubble” by the Obama administration.
Trump and some of his advisers have suggested he wants more aggressive military leadership to lead the fight against the Islamic State.
In the presidential debate, Trump said World War II generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two famously aggressive leaders, were spinning in their graves over the way the administration signaled in advance the plan to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State.
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army officer and military history professor at Ohio State University, said Trump should avoid a wholesale and abrupt overhaul of personnel.
"My guess is he will go slow at first in terms of changing out leadership," Mansoor said. “Within in a couple years he will have molded the military to personnel he’s comfortable with.”