The War is Dead, Long Live the War? Counterterrorism after the Trump Presidency

LSE IDEAS Strategic Update by Jonny Hall

South and Southeast Asia


After the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in December 2014, U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan under the remit of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel since January 2015. This operation has two fundamental tasks: ‘a train, advise, and assist role under the NATO Resolute Support mission’, and ‘continuing counterterrorism operations’ against al-Qaeda, its associated forces, and the Afghani branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[18] During the Trump administration, U.S. troops have been split fairly equally with regards to these two different tasks.[19] Thus, the rationale for the ongoing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan largely follows the same rationale as the initial intervention in October 2001. As General Kenneth McKenzie, the current commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), put it in March 2020, ‘our military mission in Afghanistan continues in support of our overriding national interest: preventing terrorist attacks against the homeland from Afghanistan’.[20]


Although Trump’s speech on Afghanistan declared that ‘Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror’, the deployment of force in the country has been minimal and far less than the previous administration.[39] The first term of the Obama presidency marked the peak of armed drone strikes in Pakistan, with an average of 73 strikes per year.[40] For Obama’s second term, the corresponding figure was 16; for the Trump administration it has been just three strikes a year, with no airstrikes since 2018.[41] Thus, although once a hotbed of U.S. counterterrorism activity, this is no longer the case, and Pakistan was not mentioned in any of Trump’s biannual letters to Congress informing members as to where the American military are operating as required by the 1973 War Powers Resolution (WPR).


As part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, American troops provide ‘intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance’ support to the Philippines army against ISIL and other terrorist organisations as part of Operation Pacific Eagle — Philippines.[42] For example, a DoD Lead Inspector General report stated that in the last quarter, ‘U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assistance helped the Philippine security forces neutralize 2 “significant targets.”’[43]

The Middle East

Operation Inherent Resolve

American troops are stationed in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the counter-ISIL operation running since June 2014. For example, as McKenzie stated in March 2020, ‘we remain in Iraq … for one mission: the defeat of ISIS’ (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).[47] In both missions, U.S. forces train local forces, whilst counter-al-Qaeda operations are also conducted in Syria.[48] Operation Inherent Resolve has followed a similar pattern to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, with an initial intensification before a partial withdrawal.


There were somewhat similar trends in terms of troop numbers in Iraq, with withdrawals beginning in 2020 having been consistent with the Obama presidency at the 6,000–7,000 mark prior to that point.[53] Counter-ISIL operations were ‘paused’ in January 2020 to focus on force protection after the Iranian counterattack which wounded over 100 American soldiers, launched in response to the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani.[54] Further, it was the strike against Soleimani that caused the Iraqi parliament to pass a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops.[55] Thus, in April 2020, Operation Inherent Resolve transitioned its sixth base over to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), something that was also encouraged by the pausing in training and equipping programmes due to Covid-19.[56]


The number of U.S. soldiers stationed in Syria became the first controversy regarding troop numbers in the Trump presidency. At the beginning of the Trump administration, there was a troop increase from around 500 U.S. soldiers to nearly 2,500 as part of an intensified counter-ISIL campaign.[60] However, in December 2018, and just a week after Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk had stated that ‘once the physical space [of ISIL] is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave’,[61] Trump unexpectedly released a video on Twitter declaring that the U.S. had ‘won’ against ISIL and that American troops were ‘all coming back, and they’re coming back now’.[62] Trump’s position triggered bipartisan criticism not dissimilar to the recent reaction to announcements regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, and also caused the resignation of then Secretary of Defense James Mattis and McGurk.[63]


Speaking in June 2020, McKenzie observed that the U.S.’ interest in Yemen was ‘primarily counterterrorism’.[75] As per Trump’s WPR letter in the same month, a ‘small number’ of U.S. troops remain stationed in Yemen ‘to conduct operations’ against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIL.[76] Until December 2019, there were also non-combat roles for U.S. troops in Yemen as part of Operation Yukon Journey, an initially classified campaign which provided support for Saudi Arabian actions against the Houthi insurgency.[77]


The Trump administration has adopted a significantly tougher approach on Iran in comparison to the previous administration, but this has largely been led by the State Department in the diplomatic and economic realms.[81] The noticeable departures from this position have been the deployment of around 14,000 troops to the Persian Gulf in May 2019, and the aforementioned drone strike against Soleimani in January 2020.[82] Though O’Brien attempted to justify this strike under the terms of the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Iraq, the administration has largely rationalised this action under the remit of self-defence.[83] Although the Trump administration has continually referred to the state-sponsored terrorism of Iran, it is precisely the inclusion of the state that makes this case so different from the rest of the cases studied here. Indeed, it is this factor that explains both the relative lack of kinetic action in comparison to other cases, as well as the lack of inclusion of Iran in documents such as the WPR letters to Congress.


In May 2020, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) General Stephen Townsend stated that there were approximately 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Africa.[84] AFRICOM has six ‘lines of effort’ (LEO) which guide its policy, three of which directly concern counterterrorism operations, suggestive of the importance that this rationale plays in U.S. interventions in Africa, much like engagement in the Middle East.[85]


One of AFRICOM’s six LEOs is to ‘contain instability in Libya’, but engagement has been fairly limited throughout the Trump administration.[86] Although DoD data shows there was an increase to 123 troops stationed in Libya between March and June 2017, by September of that year this figure had been reduced to 8, and ‘AFRICOM has not had a physical presence in Libya since April 2019’ due to the security environment of the Libyan civil war.[87]

East Africa

Trump’s WPR letters refer to counterterrorism forces being present in Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti.[90] The goal in these countries ‘is to degrade … violent extremist organizations’,[91] but Townsend stated in January 2020 to Congress that “violent extremist networks are expanding in Africa at a rapid pace”.[92] Primarily, counterterrorism in this region focuses on al-Shabaab in Somalia, especially after the organisation’s declaration in November 2019 that “publicly identified Americans and U.S. interests worldwide as priority targets”.[93] This is reflected in one of the six LEOs of AFRICOM: to ‘develop security in Somalia’.[94]

Lake Chad Basin and Sahel Region

The December 2019 WPR letter refers to U.S. forces being present in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.[109] U.S. policies in Niger were briefly thrust into the limelight when four SOF troops were killed by ISIL fighters in October 2017, with congresspeople — including those on the Senate Armed Services Committee — being unaware that American troops were in the country.[110] The June 2020 WPR letter states that American troops ‘conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations’, alongside providing ‘support’ to both African and European partners in counterterrorism. [111] Noticeably, the same letter included a general caveat at its beginning for the first time, noting that although ’the majority’ of U.S. counterterrorism missions did not involve ’routine engagement in combat … the security environment’ in some of these locations was ’such that … military personnel may be required to defend themselves against sporadic terrorist threats or attack’.[112] This appears to be in response to the events in Niger and Kenya during the Trump presidency.


To summarise the Trump administration’s counterterrorism campaigns, troop numbers and the use of force in each theatre have generally been marked by an initial intensification from the Obama presidency before a reduction to below these inherited levels. This pattern can be seen in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Inherent Resolve, and counterterrorism operations in Yemen, with Somalia being the most notable exception. The counterterrorism approaches in these countries might have followed the path trodden by the Obama administration, but these escalations can be seen as a departure in the strategy deployed by the Trump administration in an attempt to create changes on the ground to allow for the withdrawal of American troops, as per Trump’s instincts towards withdrawal.

About the Author

Jonny Hall is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research investigates the relationship between the American public and the wars waged in their name, particularly with regards to the ongoing War on Terror through the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.


[1] Joseph Biden, “Why America Must Lead Again: Recusing U.S. Foreign Policy after Trump,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 2 (2020): 72.



LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.

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LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.