By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
APRIL 2019—After four years and nine months, the U.S.-led operation aimed at stopping and ultimately reversing the Islamic State’s brutal blitzkrieg through Iraq and Syria is drawing to an end, as the last ISIS stronghold falls. However, ISIS is anything but dead or defeated, which should give the president pause as he declares victory over the terror superpower that once controlled a Britain-sized swath of the Middle East.
Noting that “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” President Donald Trump announced in December—apparently against the advice of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis—that he was withdrawing all U.S. personnel from Syria “now.” He added, “It is now time to start coming home.” That sentiment is understandable and resonates with a war-weary public. However, there are echoes here of President Barack Obama’s 2011 decision to ignore the Pentagon’s advice and instead withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq—echoes that caution against disengagement.
Before we discuss what Trump can learn from Obama in this regard, it’s important to spend a moment considering all that the U.S. and its partners in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) have done to defend civilization—and all that ISIS has done to maim it.
Much of what ISIS perpetrated in its rampage through Syria and Iraq is too gruesome to describe in this venue. But here’s the R-rated version (one strains to find the words to soften it to PG-13):
- ISIS conducted what has been described as “religious genocide” against Christians and Yazidis (a Kurdish religious tradition that blends elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam). Out of a population of 400,000 Yazidis living in of Sinjar, Iraq, nearly 10,000 were killed or kidnapped; over 6,400 Yazidi women and children were enslaved; 3,000 Yazidi women and children remain missing.
- In a haunting parallel to how the Nazis branded Jews, the ISIS death cult marked Christian-owned property with the Arabic equivalent of the letter “N,” for “Nazarene.”
- ISIS orchestrated mass-beheadings of Egyptian Christians; razed and plundered ancient churches; crucified Christian children as young as 12; conducted a systematic campaign of rape against Christian and Yazidi women; imprisoned Christian and Yazidi children as young as eight; sold children into slavery; and used “mentally challenged” children as suicide bombers, according to the United Nations.
- ISIS fighters shot women in the back as they tried to escape, massacred 1,700 unarmed Iraqi soldiers near Tikrit, summarily executed 510 Shiite prisoners in Mosul, beheaded aid workers and burned POWs alive.
- The UN has confirmed the discovery of 202 mass graves in areas of Iraq once controlled by ISIS. They are estimated to hold 12,000 bodies and include “women, children, elderly people and those with disabilities, members of Iraq’s armed forces, police and some foreign workers,” according to CNN.
If the above litany of crimes against humanity assaulted America’s conscience, the following illustrates how and why ISIS threatened (and threatens) America’s interests:
- ISIS executed American civilians and inspired bloody rampages in California and Florida. The FBI has 1,000 ISIS-related investigations underway in all 50 states.
- ISIS directly threatened U.S. allies in Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia; manufactured and deployed chemical weapons; and used its Iraq-Syria beachhead to spread into Europe, Africa and Afghanistan. By 2018, ISIS had carried out 143 attacks in 29 countries, killing 2,043 people outside Iraq and Syria.
- ISIS leaders vowed to “conquer…Rome, break your crosses and enslave your women,” called for “jihad against the Jews, the Christians…the proponents of democracy,” and promised to raise their flag over the White House.
In short, it is not an exaggeration to describe OIR as a battle for civilization. In this battle, the U.S. and its coalition partners have dropped more than 100,000 bombs; carried out 32,870 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria (as of March 2019); liberated 42,471 square miles of territory and 7.7 million people from ISIS; killed more than 70,000 ISIS fighters; and rescued thousands from certain death. At one point early in the ISIS onslaught, with tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar, U.S. cargo planes dropped pallets of food to sustain the Yazidis, while U.S. fighter-bombers dropped ordnance to block their attackers. In the span of seven days, U.S. air power delivered 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of water to the Yazidis—saving an estimated 40,000 innocents.
The U.S. has delivered $9.1 billion in humanitarian assistance into the region, while conducting 68.4 percent of the airstrikes targeting ISIS. Britain shouldered 29.6 percent of the allied share of airstrikes, France 27.5 percent, Australia 13.4 percent and the Netherlands 10.6 percent.
Speaking of allies, 74 partner nations plus NATO, the European Union, Arab League, Community of Sahel-Saharan States and INTERPOL have contributed to the fight against ISIS.
The U.S. has lost 17 troops killed in action, along with 76 troops and DoD civilian personnel killed in support of OIR. By the end of FY2018, OIR had cost the U.S. $28.5 billion.
Yet it would not be accurate to talk about the anti-ISIS fight in the past tense. Between February 24 and March 23 of this year, the coalition carried out 349 strikes targeting ISIS in Syria and Iraq (see here and here). And as of this writing, the U.S. has conducted—or continues to conduct—military operations against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and the Philippines; there are ISIS affiliates in Egypt, Nigeria, Mali, Niger and Yemen; and at least 20,000 ISIS fighters are believed to have dispersed.
Add it all up, and it seems that declaring victory is premature.
We’ve been here before. In 2011, the consensus was that Iraq needed U.S. military support to sustain the upward trajectory of the troop surge, which rescued Iraq in 2007-08. As Frederick Kagan, an architect of the surge, explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” It was a given that a new status of forces of agreement (SOFA) authorizing a follow-on U.S. force would be hammered out. “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki [then Iraq’s prime minister] will extend the SOFA,” Vice President Joe Biden predicted.
Maliki was willing to sign a new SOFA. But Obama demanded that the post-2011 SOFA be blessed by parliament rather than simply approved by Maliki. When Maliki balked, as Kagan reported, Obama withdrew all U.S. stabilization forces in December 2011 “despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”
Then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey confirmed this during Senate testimony: “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq.” Dempsey’s predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, urged the White House in mid-2011 to keep 16,000 troops in Iraq as an insurance policy to protect the hard-earned gains of the surge. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Mattis (who was CENTCOM commander at the time) and Austin (commander of U.S. Forces Iraq at the time) agreed that the U.S. needed to maintain a military presence in Iraq. Iraqi officials also agreed, warning in 2011: “Our forces are good but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone.”
But Obama always viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. Hence, there was nothing surprising about his decision to withdraw from Iraq. Regrettably, nor was there anything surprising about the results: Sometime in 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—which had been crippled by the surge—as the building blocks for ISIS. By 2012, with U.S. forces withdrawn, Baghdadi’s AQI offshoot had “morphed into the earliest version of ISIS,” as The Financial Times reported. By 2014, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk warned that ISIS aimed to “carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.” Baghdadi did exactly that—thanks to the symbiotic chaos of a Syria at war with itself and an Iraq not ready to defend itself.
Some inside the Pentagon and in the region remember the unforced errors and foreseeable problems of 2011. Gen. Joseph Votel, outgoing CENTCOM commander, warns, “We really have to be very careful when we step away from our interests.” He worries about “stepping away too quickly” and has advised those up the chain of command that “staying engaged at the right level, the right size, with the right partners…is really important.”
Votel believes ISIS is not defeated but rather engaged in a “deliberate effort to evacuate people, to take their chances in internally displaced persons camps and…prisons, and try to export out their capabilities as much as they can,” adding that ISIS fighters “still have leaders, still have resources.”
Similarly, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president arguing that withdrawing from Syria “at this time is a premature and costly mistake that not only threatens the safety and security of the United States, but also emboldens ISIS, Bashar al Assad, Iran and Russia.” This has prompted Trump to consider maintaining a small force of 400 U.S. troops in Syria, though one wonders how much 400 troops can do vis-à-vis the vast array of hostiles currently in Syria.
The president is right to say that he “inherited a total mess” in the Middle East. But by ignoring what caused the mess—namely, a shortsighted decision to disengage from Iraq—he runs the risk of repeating his predecessor’s mistakes and creating a new mess.