Trump continues Pentagon purge as another senior official resigns

Defeat-ISIS Task Force head Christopher Maier is latest Pentagon departure

FILE PHOTO: The Pentagon building is seen in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. October 8, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

Less than a month after firing Defence Secretary Mark Esper, US President Donald Trump continued a staff shake-up at the Pentagon with the departure of the director of the Defeat-ISIS Task Force this week.

Christopher Maier, director since March 2017, resigned on Monday evening. The office and the team he oversaw "will be absorbed" by the office of Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict, a statement by the Pentagon read.

The statement pointed to the victory against ISIS as justifying the changes. “These changes recognise the success of the military fight to destroy the so-called physical caliphate of ISIS and reflect the DoD's commitment to institutionalise efforts to counter ISIS and integrate efforts with allies and partners within our counter-terrorism and regional policy offices,” it said.

Acting Secretary of Defence Chris Miller, who according to sources clashed with Mr Maier, accepted his resignation on Monday.

The move also empowers Trump loyalists Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Anthony Tata, who were recently transferred from the White House to the Pentagon, to take over Mr Maier’s responsibilities.

Counter-terrorism and defence analysts told The National that the latest resignation at the Pentagon was both a product of vengeance by the Trump administration and a premature declaration of victory against ISIS.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Centre, said the departure of Mr Maier and the transfer of the office could do lasting damage to the fight against ISIS.

“This hurts the fight against ISIS because it removes someone like Maier, who has the institutional knowledge necessary to help with continuity [for the Joe Biden administration], which is critical,” Mr Clarke said. Mr Biden will take office in 50 days, although Mr Trump has not conceded the election.

“Mr Trump's remaining tenure in office will be about exacting revenge against what he sees as remnants of the so-called Deep State, or really against any department or agency that has dared to operationalise autonomy on defence policy issues,” Mr Clarke said.

He said that the Trump loyalists now in charge (Mr Watnick and Mr Tata) lacked the expertise and institutional knowledge to carry out Mr Maier's responsibilities. "It also sends exactly the wrong signal – that the fight against ISIS is over, which anyone paying attention clearly recognises is not the case."

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, read the resignation of Mr Maier as a direct attempt to undermine the Biden team. "The timing and nature of Chris's departure is all too clear evidence of his fate being tied to the Trump administration's petty and destructive fire-setting as it prepares to depart in January," Mr Lister told The National.

He described the ousted official as “a veteran, bipartisan expert and practitioner”. “This is not evidence that we’ve beaten ISIS…it severely limits the at-hand tools that will be available come January 20,” he said.

At least five senior Pentagon officials have resigned their positions since Mr Miller was installed at the department on November 9.

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