President Donald Trump recently announced his projection of an imminent victory over the Islamic State. In an address to members of the Coalition to Defeat ISIS, on 6 February Trump said he expects coalition forces to announce as early as next week that they have reclaimed all of the territory once held by Islamic State group militants in Iraq and Syria. This would indeed be a major milestone in the fight against the militant group. “Over the past two years we have retaken 20,000 square miles of land; we have seen victory after victory after victory,” he told representatives from the seventy-nine-member global coalition. “We have retaken both Mosul and Raqqa. We’ve eliminated more than 60 high-value ISIS leaders. Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters are gone. They’re gone.”
Taken in Proportion
Trump’s highlights of the victories over the Islamic State in both their Iraqi and Syrian strongholds are fair points. The organization that was once seen as an unstoppable extremist force has been essentially dislodged and routed in all of their major areas of operation. But there is an important difference between outstanding progress and total victory.
Trump has his reasons for being overly optimistic on ISIS. His comments at the coalition gathering came hours after his State of the Union address in which he complained of America’s “endless wars” and spoke of the need for troop withdrawals across the Middle East and Afghanistan. Cutting down on the United States’ global military adventures is the president’s chosen agenda. On the whole it is a worthy cause. But a country prematurely lowering its guard can only prove detrimental.
U.S. defense and intelligence as well as many policymakers are less excited about the ISIS situation. In fact, the issue has been a major point of contention both within the administration and between the White House and Congress. These differing views on progress regarding ISIS first came to the fore when the president announced in December his shock decision to pull all U.S. troops from Syria. The decision has attracted criticism from every level of government, with everyone from top Pentagon planners to the head of Central Command expressing dismay. The Senate even issued a bipartisan bill recently, urging Trump to reconsider.
Of all the controversy in Washington today, this may be the issue with the most consensus: ISIS remains an un-neutralized threat. Weakened, but still very dangerous. Unfortunately for the president, the facts simply do not support him on this one.
Reality On the Ground
The most important document to assess the ISIS threat of the past few years was the Worldwide Threat Assessment published several weeks ago by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). For the unaffiliated, the DNI was established in order to be both a coordinator and synthesizer of the entire U.S. intelligence community. Thus the Threat Assessment contains a distillation of everything American intelligence assets have on the state of ISIS.
A break down of the DNI’s take on ISIS is something like this:
According to the Assessment, ISIS still commands “thousands of fighters” in both Iraq and Syria, has currently eight branches, and more than a dozen networks between militant groups. All of this has been maintained despite significant leadership and territorial losses.
In terms of the Islamic State’s areas of operations, this can be divided into two primary regions.
In Iraq, ISIS is biding its time. The underlying political and economic factors that facilitated the rise of ISIS some seven years ago persist as the central government remains inept. As the DNI put it, ISIS’s strategy is to “exploit Sunni grievances” with the Baghdad-based authorities and societal instability to “eventually regain Iraqi territory” against Iraqi security forces. In other words, the gains of the coalition in Mosul could be lost if ISIS is not kept in check.
In Syria, things are even more dire. Although weakened, ISIS’s Syria-based forces “will exploit any reduction in coalition pressure” to strengthen its operations and rebuild its infrastructure, including media production and “external operations,” ie., those executed outside the country.
ISIS will likely have more breathing room to maneuver over the next year as Bashar al-Assad loyalists continue to re-consolidate power over the country. The regime will almost certainly invest its energy into reasserting control over the northern regions of the country, which over the years have become Kurdish strongholds. As far as al-Assad is concerned, this will be strictly strategic. The regime is unlikely to immediately focus on clearing ISIS from remote areas that do not threaten key military, economic, and transportation infrastructure. This in turn will leave ISIS more or less unimpeded in their held territory in Syria.
Bringing the danger of ISIS as an organization closer to home, the DNI also dealt with the threat of what it calls “homegrown violent extremists,” (HVEs). If left to its own devices, Islamic State will not only work on territorial gains but victories in the information war as well by rebuilding its propaganda and media infrastructure. According to the Threat Assessment, HEVs influenced by ISIS’s message are likely to present “the most acute Sunni terrorist threat to the United States.”
The recent DNI report (as well as all the other clamoring by agency heads and military brass on the lingering dangers of ISIS) should not be taken as a doomsday prediction. As the strategic reality stands, the Coalition certainly has the upper hand against the Islamic State. The message of the president’s critics is not to negate all of the wins Trump has been boasting of over the past week. To the contrary, these achievements are valued by all parties, Congress, the defense establishment, and the intelligence community. The warning is simply to not lose these tremendous gains with a premature declaration of victory.