LONDON (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his British counterpart expressed confidence Thursday that the Trump administration will continue America's role as leader of the international military coalition against the Islamic State group.
"I do have confidence in the future of the coalition campaign," whose central premise is that local forces must do the fighting, with support from the coalition, Carter said during a news conference. "It's logical. It makes sense," he said, adding that he believes that logic "will recommend itself" to the Trump administration.
Speaking after a meeting of 15 core members of the anti-IS coalition, Carter said he intends to share his views on this with his successor, who is expected to be retired Marine Gen. James Mattis.
"Among my recommendations will be the need for the United States to remain actively engaged as leader of this coalition," Carter said. "Our coalition can and, I'm confident, will finish this job together."
The British defense minister, Michael Fallon, speaking alongside Carter, echoed his view.
"We're dealing here with a global threat," he said. "I have no doubt the next administration will step up to its traditional role" as a world leader, Fallon said.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of questions about what Donald Trump's arrival in the White House next month will mean for the coalition's future.
Closing out a nearly two-week overseas trip that included a stop in Iraq, Carter met with his counterparts and got an update from Army Gen. Joseph Votel on the battles to retake Mosul, the Islamic State's key stronghold in Iraq, and Raqqa, the self-declared IS capital in Syria. As head of U.S. Central Command, Votel is the top officer overseeing the counter-IS campaign in Syria and Iraq.
The defense officials also discussed doing more to train and equip the kinds of local Iraq and Syrian forces, including police and tribal fighters, that will be needed to hold Mosul and Raqqa once, as expected, the Islamic State is uprooted from those cities. IS has held those centers for more than two years.
Carter said at the meeting's outset that the coalition must remain involved in Iraq even after the Islamic State is driven from Mosul.
"We'll need to continue to counter not only foreign fighters trying to escape, but also ISIL's attempts to relocate or reinvent itself," he said. "To do so, both the United States and the coalition must remain engaged militarily. In Iraq in particular, we must be prepared to provide sustained assistance to the Iraqi security forces to consolidate security over the rest of the country."
The U.S. has about 5,000 troops in Iraq.
But the backdrop to Thursday's conference was deep uncertainty in London, Berlin and other coalition capitals about the implications for the counter-IS efforts of a change in U.S. administrations in January. Trump has criticized President Barack Obama's approach to fighting the militant group as weak and ineffective, and he has suggested that the U.S. has blindly supported anti-IS groups without knowing their true aims.
Among the questions Carter cannot answer: Will Trump withdraw support for U.S.-backed rebels groups in Syria, who have now lost the city of Aleppo? And if he does, will he join forces with Russia? How might such moves affect public support for the anti-IS coalition in Germany and elsewhere?
Though Obama has tried to work diplomatically with Russia, Syria cease-fire deals have repeatedly collapsed, with the U.S. accusing Moscow of failing to use its influence to prevent Syria's President Bashar Assad from violating them. Meanwhile, Russia's military intervention has succeeded in helping Assad reclaim the upper hand. The U.S.-led coalition has avoided direct military action against Assad's force, focusing instead on supporting local rebels willing to fight the Islamic State group while coupling that effort with aerial bombing in both Syria and Iraq.
Carter was expected to emphasize to his counterparts at the London conference the prominent role that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis will play as the president-elect's choice to succeed Carter at the Pentagon. Mattis is well-known and widely admired in Europe, having headed NATO's Supreme Allied Command Transformation from 2007 to 2009, a role focused on preparing the military alliance for security challenges of the future.
Other countries represented at the conference were Iraq, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Norway, Spain and Turkey.