ISIS is not dead — far from it, contrary to claims from the White House about a total defeat of the terrorist organization that at one point controlled swaths of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
The group established a number of splinter cells and a network of affiliates in Europe, parts of Africa and as far east as the Philippines. Some remain in operation, especially in weaker nations with poor law enforcement and raging civil conflicts.
These countries quickly become recruitment zones, fundraising sources and unmonitored locations to radicalize and train recruits, and launch deadly attacks; the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, for instance, has carried out attacks that have killed 800 and injured over 1,000 people in the past year alone.
Through online radicalization, the group continues to inspire lone wolves or groups that disseminate its ideology. One troubling development, particularly for Washington, is ISIS instructing recruits to exploit loopholes in already lax US gun laws to stock up on firearms and ammunition. Increasingly, this “new” ISIS is more adept at exploiting political, religious, sectarian and even economic divisions across the globe. In the first half of this year, ISIS has admitted nearly 2,000 attacks, which have killed or injured more than 8,000 people.
None of this would be possible if the core of the group had been eradicated. ISIS was indeed routed from parts of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and significant parts of its organization decimated into whimpering shells of what was once a terrifying juggernaut. However, a recent Pentagon report said ISIS was quickly regaining its insurgency capabilities. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo downplayed the overall threat but concurred that ISIS remained powerful in some areas.
Unfortunately, a president seeking any policy victories to tout in a re-election campaign is more inclined to settle on politically expedient outcomes than on practical realities.
Complex engagements in the Middle East require meticulous, long-term planning, significant resources and high-level coordination with others, but an impatient White House has settled on a shortsighted withdrawal of troops and advisers out of frustration at the convoluted dynamics that beset the region in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
Troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria could end the trillion-dollar War on Terror that created more problems than it solved, and deliver a policy victory of sorts, but they would set back anti-insurgency operations in the region by years. For instance, territorial disputes between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi government created areas of instability that became safe havens for a crippled ISIS. Being an ally of sorts to both Baghdad and the Kurds, the US has the wherewithal to play the arbiter, while also forcing both sides to focus on anti-insurgency operations in the disputed territories that stretch from east of Baghdad to the northwest border with Syria. However, the White House’s insistence that ISIS is defeated coupled with a reluctance to commit resources and manpower to the next phase of anti-ISIS operations mean the task will remain incomplete.
The lack of a coherent Middle East policy from the White House is likely to contribute to a ISIS resurgence or, at the very least, claw back any gains made after its defeat in Baghouz, Syria. NATO ally Turkey has threatened to attack US trained and equipped Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, the same forces that brought ISIS to its knees.
Those forces have detained about 10,000 suspected ISIS fighters who could escape if Turkey goes on the warpath against Kurdish YPG separatists. Better policy would seek to assuage Turkish concerns while also lending the requisite support, military or otherwise, to Kurdish forces contingent on not supporting separatists. Such a policy could easily be aligned with possible solutions to tensions between Baghdad and Erbil — perhaps joint governance of contested areas.
Such policies require a sustained presence of experienced diplomatic staff in Ankara, Erbil and Baghdad to ensure compliance and maintain oversight, but escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran led to a withdrawal of non-essential US diplomats from Baghdad. This has eroded Washington’s policy-making, stabilization efforts and regional monitoring capabilities — all essential to anti-ISIS efforts.
Another headache lies with the 70,000 people in Al-Hol refugee camp, about 50,000 of them under 18. Troop withdrawals and a failure to provide sufficient humanitarian relief have created conditions that allow ISIS ideology to thrive. Deradicalization, reintegration and repatriation programs there are essential.
Meanwhile in Libya, the Trump administration has chosen not to use its leverage to stop the civil war, and went as far as to pull the carpet from under those forces that have partnered with it in the past few years in rooting out ISIS from the city of Sirte. The chaos in Libya, too, is creating the right environment and instability for ISIS to re-emerge.
Most military officers, diplomats, politicians and government officials from the Middle East to Washington agree that without sustained engagement, high-level coordination and sophisticated anti-insurgency operations, ISIS is likely to return. Indeed, all evidence points to the group’s evolution from a marauding, territory-hoarding proto-state to a far more insidious, well-organized clandestine organization.
We may decry endless wars, but Washington is not only failing miserably at achieving its own stated goal of eradicating an agent of chaos that preaches death and destruction in a world starved of peace and stability, but is in fact pursuing policies that will create a more suitable environment for ISIS to flourish.