With a new administration preparing to take charge, there is growing uncertainty about the role of U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
When Donald Trump assumes office in mid-January, there will be 15,000 American personnel deployed to those theaters. He has sent mixed signals regarding the wars, vowing on the one hand to crush extremists determined to attack the homeland while also signaling an "America first" policy meant to avoid expending more blood and treasure overseas.
It’s possible all three combat theaters could need more U.S. forces in the coming months. And with President Barack Obama gone and Republicans in control of Congress, there may be less concern in Washington about putting "boots on the ground."
In Iraq, the Islamic State will likely lose the territory it had occupied, transforming into a full-blown insurgency. When that happens, the U.S. may need to continue or even expand its train-advise-and-assist mission in order to help the Iraqi army preserve its hard-fought gains.
Video by Daniel Woolfolk/Staff
In Syria, the U.S and its fragile cast of allies must defeat the Islamic State in its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa. That’ll be a large operation.
In December, the Pentagon expanded its authorized footprint in Syria from 300 to 500 troops, primarily special operations forces, advisers and explosive ordnance disposal specialists. Many experts believe a much larger American presence will be required to destroy ISIS there.
In Afghanistan, there is considerable pessimism about the 15-year-old war that Obama had hoped to end before leaving office. Instead, he’ll be leaving 8,400 troops there.
The Taliban continues to mount large-scale offenses. U.S. airstrikes are targeting a fledgling Islamic State faction there. And top U.S. commanders acknowledge they have overestimated the ability of the Afghan military and government to modernize.
The task of assessing and ultimately determining future force levels in all three theaters will likely fall to be a man who knows the region well. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, oversaw military activity throughout the region as head of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.