Trump’s Band of War Heroes: The Generals in the New Administration


General James “Mad Dog” Mattis

This series of profiles originally appeared in December on the “Breaking Defense” website.

By James Kitfield, Monday, December 19, 2016

The generals likely to hold top positions in the incoming Trump administration share a common trait: They are combat veterans highly attuned to looming threats.

While it’s raised eyebrows in terms of traditional civil-military relations, president-elect Donald Trump’s decision to lean heavily on generals in building his national security team has been received with sighs of relief by many foreign policy and national security experts. By the nature of their profession, senior military leaders tend to be pragmatic internationalists who know how to run large organizations. They understand from experience how the world works. They are generally disciplined and well-read. Having come of age on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, these generals are also intimately familiar with the horrors of war, and the second- and third-order consequences of firing the first shot.

“Given the huge amount of uncertainty over the composition of Trump’s national security team, I do think the announcement of a top spot for a general like Jim Mattis has been greeted widely with sighs of relief,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “As a rule, you might like to see more civilians in these jobs, but these are pretty exceptional times in the political life of the United States, and if the best people for these jobs turn out to be former military officers, so be it.”

Indeed, the generals likely to form the top ranks of a Trump administration are among the most renowned wartime commanders of their generation. As the presumptive Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Corps General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis will have as his chief military adviser Marine Corps General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford, appointed by Obama as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both flag officers earned their nicknames the old fashioned way during multiple combat tours. They are also close to retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, another combat veteran and the former commander of US Southern Command, who will reportedly serve as Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security. According to a knowledgeable source, it was Mattis who took upon himself the heartbreaking task of telling John Kelly that his son, 1st Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly, had been killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

A more controversial choice is incoming National Security Adviser and retired Army Lt. General Michael Flynn. Before heading the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn served for years as the intelligence chief for Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and later the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In both jobs his boss was General Stanley McChrystal, another name floated by the Trump transition team for a possible role in the new administration. When McChrystal was fired as the top commander in Afghanistan in 2010 for intemperate remarks by his staff to a Rolling Stone reporter, he was replaced by General David Petraeus, the hero of the Iraq “surge” who until recently was on the shortlist for Trump’s Secretary of State. Both Flynn and Petraeus, in turn, are personally close to retired Army General Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff and a backroom architect of the Iraq surge campaign who said he turned down Trump’s offer to become Secretary of Defense, opening the way for Mattis.

At his rallies, Trump likes to describe Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis as a reincarnation of pugnacious World War II commander General George Patton. But it would be a mistake and disservice to characterize this unique group of wartime field commanders as reactionary, warmongering, or incapable of compromise. The lesson most senior military leaders took from Afghanistan and especially Iraq was the danger of the US military being overly committed to a mission without the sufficient backing of the rest of the US government, or of the American public. The Joint Chiefs thus generally shared President Obama’s reluctance, for instance, to get heavily involved in the Syrian civil war.

Those who fear an intemperate cabal of militaristic generals should recall that General Petraeus designed the more holistic and humanistic counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, which turned the tide in those conflicts not by focusing on killing insurgents and terrorists — “kinetics” — but rather by protecting the civilian populations and nation-building — “clear, hold and build.”

“There was no foundation whatsoever for the argument that we could have succeeded in Iraq or Afghanistan with a counterterrorism strategy alone,” Petraeus told me in an interview for my recent book Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American War of War (Basic Books, 2016). “That’s just man-hunting, and you can hunt men all day long and the enemy is going to keep regenerating. That’s why you have to clear territory and hold it.”

After building the greatest terrorist-hunting network in history at Joint Special Operations Command, Generals McChrystal and Flynn famously got into a tug-of-war with the White House in 2009, when they insisted that killing terrorists and insurgents would not by itself be a war-winning strategy in Afghanistan. “I felt like a victim of our own counterterrorism successes at JSOC, because after Iraq no one wanted to touch the stove again in terms of another COIN (counterinsurgency) campaign in Afghanistan,” McChrystal told me in an interview for my book. “I know I irritated some people, and it became a great friction point, but I had to keep insisting that you can’t kill your way out of the situation we faced in Afghanistan.”

Serving together in Iraq, Generals Mattis and Kelly learned the same lesson. “In places in our area of responsibility where things were not going well, and violence was up, it was almost always because US commanders were being too kinetic,” Kelly told me in an interview. “If you go into a situation like that with a kinetic attitude, you’re acting as a hammer and suddenly everything looks like a nail.”

As the commander of 1st Marine Division in Iraq, Mattis famously popularized its motto “no better friend, no worse enemy.” He also had Middle East experts offer his Marines cultural sensitivity training. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Mattis instructed his troops that “Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it’s a victory for al-Qaeda and other insurgents,” and “Every time you wave at an Iraqi civilian, al-Qaeda rolls over in its grave.”

As the former chief intelligence officer for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Flynn wrote a controversial article criticizing the intelligence community for focusing too narrowly on targeting insurgents and terrorists, and not enough on understanding the broader cultural context of the conflict. He also pushed back on the Obama administration’s narrative that killing Osama bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants had “decimated” Al Qaeda.

“We killed a lot of Al Qaeda leaders, whether it was Abu Musab Zarqawi [Al Qaeda in Iraq], Anwar al-Awlaki [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], or Osama bin Laden [core Al Qaeda], but the groups kept fighting,” Flynn told me in an interview. “That convinced me that taking out the leadership was not a war-winning strategy.”

If this group of veteran combat leaders belie cigar-chomping stereotypes, their wartime experiences have made them hyper-attuned to growing threats now confronting the United States, an array of challenges that is arguably more complex and varied than at any time since World War II. In terms of President-elect Trump’s picks of generals for top posts, another common thread unites them: Generals Mattis, Kelly and Flynn each became embroiled in disagreements with the Obama White House over the urgency of looming threats, specifically from Iran, ISIS and at a porous southern border. Their pasts may well act as prologue, foreshadowing Trump foreign and national security policy.

James “Mad Dog” Mattis

When General Mattis served as the commander of US Central Command in 2013, he took responsibility for a region on fire. The Taliban and Al Qaeda continued to use sanctuaries in Pakistan to destabilize neighboring Afghanistan, where US troops were still fighting. The Syrian civil war was destabilizing its neighbors such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey with unprecedented flows of refugees, and attracting like moths to a flame Islamist extremist groups such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. The sectarian rule of Iraqi Prime Minister and Shiite Nouri al-Maliki was threatening to reignite a Shiite versus Sunni civil war there. Libya had descended into chaos after the NATO intervention that toppled the government of Muammar Gaddafi. Yemen was teetering towards all out civil war following its own Arab Spring revolution that ousted its strongman ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, a US ally.

And yet when he woke up each morning, Mattis recently said that the first three questions he confronted centered on Iran, Iran and Iran.

“The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” Mattis told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in April. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria remain immediate and serious threats, he noted, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a concern. “But nothing, I believe, is as serious in the long term, in terms of its enduring ramifications…as Iran.”

At Odds With Obama

While the rest of the Obama foreign affairs team was focused on reaching a long-sought deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Mattis was monitoring the threat Iran continued to pose in other realms such as maritime security in the Persian Gulf, ballistic missile development and proliferation, cyber insecurity, and, especially, state-sponsored terrorism. With the money Iran has received from the unfreezing of its funds and the relaxation of sanctions as part of the nuclear deal, Mattis believes Iran will invest heavily in those other destabilizing activities.

A State Department report in 2012 noted that Iran had already increased the tempo of its support for proxies in the region such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Iraq. US Navy and allied ships continued to interdict Iranian arms shipments to terrorist and insurgent groups in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and his colleagues have called for wiping Israel off the map and annexing Bahrain, and they have boasted publicly of Tehran’s control over four regional capitals in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Mattis’ tough rhetoric on Iran led to his being ousted early from his job at CENTCOM in 2013. At CSIS he gave a preview of how his perception of the Iranian threat might manifest itself in policy if he is to become Secretary of Defense. Absent a clear violation of the Iran nuclear agreement that the “P5 plus 1” nations (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany) signed in 2015, he doesn’t believe there is any “going back” on that deal.

“I believe we would be alone if we did that, and unilateral economic sanctions from the United States would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach,” said Mattis. “But I do think we’re going to have to hold at risk Iran’s nuclear program in the future. In other words, make plans now of what we will do if in fact Iran restarts that program.”

A Secretary of Defense Mattis is likely to advocate for a more assertive strategy designed to deter and contain Iran. That strategy would begin with firmer commitments to nervous allies in the region such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Other likely elements of a Mattis strategy for the Middle East that he sketched out at CSIS include stepped-up arms sales to regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, which recently surpassed Russia as the third largest spender on military weapons; a sharper focus on Iran by a beefed up intelligence community that can use the nuclear deal’s stringent verification regime to develop targets in the event Iran cheats or restarts its nuclear weapons program; a more capable and integrated allied missile defense system in the region; a restart of “Radio Farsi” to beam news and information directly to the Iranian people, much as Voice of America countered Soviet propaganda during the Cold War; more maritime exercises hosted by the US Navy’s 5th Fleet such as a de-mining drill during Mattis’ tenure at CENTCOM that attracted the navies of 39 nations; and continued US sanctions on Iran for its sponsorship of terrorism.

“We’re going to have to return to a strategic view such as we had years ago, because we now know the vacuums left in the Middle East seem to be filled either by terrorists, Iran and its surrogates, or Russia,” Mattis said. “In the future, we need to recognize that to restore deterrence, [the United States] is going to have to show capability, capacity and resolve.”

Lt Gen. Michael Flynn, The Maverick 

“Know your enemy and know yourself, and you will not be defeated in 100 battles.” But what if you try to understand your enemy and he’s as firm a believer in his skewed moral universe as you are in yours? That’s the dilemma that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn faced as director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command and the International Security Assistance Force in Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Flynn spent countless hours interrogating senior commanders for Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Iraq, which would later morph into ISIS. He could understand their hatred of American soldiers, but Flynn was perplexed by the fact that the vast majority of their tens of thousands of victims were fellow Muslims.

During the course of those interrogations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Flynn concluded that what united the terrorist warlords was a common ideology, specifically the extremist Salafi jihadist ideology that rejects any separation of church and state in favor of puritanical interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. These Sunni jihadists are intolerant of other religions or sects, and violent by the very nature of their cause of waging “holy war.”

“Over the course of all those interrogations, I concluded that ‘core Al Qaeda’ wasn’t actually comprised of human beings, but rather it was an ideology with a particular version of Islam at its center,” Flynn told me in September. In a way, the human beings who make up al Qaeda are just the hosts for the real threat: a nihilistic ideology with a fundamentalist, religious totalitarianism at its center.
“More than a religion, this ideology encompasses a political belief system, because its adherents want to rule things—whether it’s a village, a city, a region or an entire ‘caliphate,’” Flynn said. “And to achieve that goal, they are willing to use extreme violence. The religious nature of that threat makes it very hard for Americans to come to grips with.”

At the DIA, Flynn’s perception of the growing threat posed by Islamist extremists put him at odds with the triumphalist narrative coming out of the White House. With the death of Osama bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants in 2011, the Obama administration argued that Al Qaeda “core” was “decimated,” and the threat from terrorism rapidly diminishing. In 2012, the National Intelligence Council had even crafted a draft National Intelligence Estimate — a document supposed to represent the consensus view of the US intelligence community — which reportedly concluded that Al Qaeda was no longer a threat to the United States.

Flynn and a number of other senior intelligence officials had successfully pushed back hard against that conclusion as premature. Flynn had DIA analysts distill that intelligence into a PowerPoint slide that showed that the number of radical Islamist terrorist groups had nearly doubled between 2004 and 2013, and that they occupied a far larger global footprint than before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Flynn believes that his disagreement with the White House over the nature of the terrorist threat is a major reason he was forced out a year early as head of the DIA. “The intelligence I saw as director of the DIA made it very clear that Al Qaeda and its affiliates were not on the run, but were in fact rapidly expanding,” Flynn said in our recent interview. “The number of terrorist attacks were on the rise, and Iraq was starting to burn again. So that was Obama’s big lie: that the enemy was on the run, and we were beating these guys.”


As Donald Trump’s selection as National Security Adviser, Flynn has been criticized for previously accepting a paid speaking engagement in Moscow from a Russian propaganda organization. He’s also made tweets and public comments that seem to denigrate the entire religion of Islam, rather than the Salafi jihadist strain that seeks to impose its fundamentalist worldview by force. More recently he has gotten into trouble for tweets that passed along “fake news” and conspiracy theories.

Only time will tell if these reflect a flaw in Flynn’s judgment, or merely the initial missteps of a senior officer who spent decades in the shadows of the intelligence world and is still adjusting to life in the national spotlight at the side of tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump. In our interview, Flynn told me that the trip to Moscow was arranged by his speaking bureau and he sees no problem with it. He has numerous Muslim friends who acted as his interpreters in war zones, he noted, and he understands the threat comes from an extremist minority.

In his recent book The Field of Fight, Flynn wrote of the global terrorist threat that “we’re in a world war, but very few Americans recognize it, and fewer still have any idea how to win it.” Now that he is poised to serve as president-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Flynn’s view of that global threat is likely to translate into a more aggressive campaign against the networks of Islamist extremists groups with ISIS and Al Qaeda at their center.

Almost to a man, Flynn and the other generals in Trump’s constellation believe President Obama made a mistake in pulling all US troops out of Iraq in 2011. They are likely to advocate for a sustained US troop presence in Iraq even after ISIS loses territory, and in Afghanistan where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have made a recent comeback. Like Mattis, Flynn said he would not support a return to “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding — except possibly in extreme cases where the nation was threatened by an imminent terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction.
Flynn supports a closer US alignment with strongmen such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Russia’s Vladmir Putin in the fight against Islamist extremist groups. He also believes the rules of engagement for US forces fighting ISIS should be relaxed.

“Not long ago US pilots spotted an ISIS convoy of some 120 vehicles leaving Mosul, but they weren’t allowed to destroy it because of the potential for ‘collateral damage’ to civilians,” said Flynn. (The haunting question is how much “collateral damage” the terrorists lived to do to local civilians after their escape). “Well, this is war, and there’s always a potential for collateral damage in war. You either have to accept that and try and win it, or engage in an endless war. So I’m definitely tired of some of these constraints.”

General John Kelly Versus the Narco-Terrorists 

As chief of US Southern Command, General John Kelly spent much of his time worrying about the nexus of violent drug cartels, transnational smuggling organizations, and terrorist groups in Latin America. The threats range from narco-Marxists like Colombia’s FARC and Shining Path in Peru all the way to Hezbollah, which has a presence in the region due to a large Lebanese diaspora. All of those groups ply their trade near a porous US southern border.
“There have been notable successes in this region, such as Colombia’s fight against FARC, but I continue to be concerned about this convergence between known terrorist organizations and illicit smuggling and money-laundering networks,” Kelly told me in an interview last year, before he retired. “There are those in the intelligence community who take the view that it is not a major threat and argue that those groups will never find common cause. I think those who take that view are simply trying to rationalize away the problem because no one wants to raise another major threat at a time when we face so many around the world.”

The hybrid threat of “narcoterrorism” is not new. In the 1990s, the US joined in Colombia’s fight against Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel, a hyper-violent criminal organization that turned to terror in its fight against Colombian authorities, routinely bombing police buildings, assassinating judges and politicians, and even blowing up a civilian airliner in flight.

With US help, Colombia successfully fractured the Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1990s — but this victory had the unintended consequence of creating a vacuum in the lucrative drug trade. That vacuum was eventually filled by brutal Mexican cartels and Colombia’s FARC, which morphed from a Marxist insurgency relying on terrorist tactics into primarily a drug production and trafficking organization. According to Drug Enforcement Administration statistics, nearly 40 percent of the State Department’s designated terrorist groups are now involved in drug trafficking. Like bank robbers in the roaring ’20s, today’s terrorists are just going where the money is.

The connective tissue between terrorists, drug cartels and smuggling networks makes narcoterrorism a potent threat. For instance, in 2011, an Iranian operative named Mansour Arbabsiar approached an extremely violent Mexican drug cartel with a murder-for-hire proposal. Arbabsiar was working for the Iranian military, and he proposed that a cartel hit man assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States — not with a sniper’s single bullet, but by bombing a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C., that the ambassador frequented. Luckily, and only by chance, the individual Arbabsiar approached was a DEA informant, and the plot was thwarted.

In another instance the same year, DEA agents in Guatemala intercepted a shipment of cocaine and $20 million tied to the Mexican cartel Los Zetas. In a wide-ranging conspiracy investigation, the DEA discovered that the drug shipment was part of a smuggling network that moved product from South America to Europe via West Africa. The profits were then laundered through the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which scrubbed the money in part by financing a string of used-car dealerships in the United States. The ultimate benefactor of the proceeds? The Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. The US Treasury Department ultimately shut down the Lebanese Canadian Bank, exposing its links to Hezbollah and sanctioning it under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

An ‘Existential’ Threat
Near the time of his retirement as commander of SOUTHCOM last year, Kelly made headlines by calling the confluence of terrorism, violent drug cartels, collapsing societies and out-of-control migration an “existential” threat to the United States. As Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security, he can be expected to take seriously the task of securing the southern US border and increasing the intelligence and law enforcement resources devoted to countering the narcoterrorism threat.
“I’m paid to worry about worst-case scenarios, but to me if a known terrorist group is doing business with a known illicit smuggling network, that amounts to convergence, and we’re already seeing it,” Kelly told me last year. The organizations may not share the same motives or ideology, he noted, but illicit smuggling networks don’t check passports or do baggage checks, and they involve thousands of unscrupulous subcontractors who are interested in money, not motive.
“So if we don’t care about a heroin epidemic or illicit drugs from Latin America that kill 40,000 Americans on average each year, or the fact that these cartels are corrupting and intimidating the governments of our neighbors with illicit money and violence, then we should at least care about these brutally efficient smuggling networks that reach deep inside the United States,” Kelly said. “ISIS often talks about that vulnerability on their websites.”

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