Under President Obama’s watch, the Islamic State conquered a so-called caliphate the size of Ohio in Syria and Iraq. Luckily a new, “tough” president - Donald Trump - stepped in, loosed restrictions on his military, and, defeated the bad guys. At least that’s the popular story and the party line.
Of course, the ground-level truth is much messier.
If ISIS is so decisively and irreversibly defeated, how then to explain last week’s gruesome double-suicide bombing in Baghdad and expert warnings that up to 10,000 ISIS loyalists remain in Iraq and Syria?
The problem is that, even after 17 years of hard lessons to the contrary, most Americans - and administration spokespeople - insist on viewing ISIS as a linear, conventional threat. A quick look at color-coded Syria maps gives the obvious impression that ISIS as a conventional military force indeed has receded. Plentiful U.S. airstrikes, ample American advisory teams, and local Kurdish ground troops combined to devastate Islamic State’s fighters - which is a positive development.
Unfortunately, that may have been the easy part. Conventional destruction does not equate to total, ideological defeat. ISIS is as much idea as army, and such groups have proved remarkably resilient and capable of morphing into new, menacing manifestations.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hinted at this, fearing the growth of “ISIS 2.0.” The thing is, we’re already fighting the second manifestation of Islamic State, which used to be called al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and reconstituted itself in U.S. prisons in that country. The next threat is actually ISIS 3.0.
Odds are ISIS leaders, fighters and sympathizers will go underground for a while — in both Iraq and Syria. They’ll keep up their slick media campaign, slowly reconstitute and continue to inspire terror attacks. But there’s something else: America’s regional military presence itself undoubtedly will fuel the Phoenix-like rise of ISIS 3.0.
The Islamic State’s worldview and ideological playbook consist of more than just Sunni chauvinism and jihadi interpretations of the Koran. A third key ingredient has always been virulent opposition to any Western military presence. What Americans view as advising and assisting, jihadis — and an uncomfortable number of like-minded sympathizers — see as occupation.
Trump supporters, most political conservatives and many military officers point to Obama’s supposedly hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 as the impetus for the rise of ISIS. That explanation was simplistic — and, in the case of candidate Trump claiming that Obama literally "founded ISIS,” bordered on the absurd.
Nevertheless, in the court of public opinion (especially among Republicans), the charges stuck. Premature withdrawal indeed can be a serious mistake, but there’s a flip side: Stay too long, and military assistance can resemble invasion or occupation. Notice how that’s rarely discussed.
It’s a tough balance to strike: applying sufficient U.S. military aid when necessary whilst not overstaying a (very brief) welcome. Sixteen full years of U.S. military occupations in the Greater Middle East and a 2003 Iraq regime change have simply tarnished the American brand regionally, perhaps beyond repair. So much so, in fact, that one could argue that any overt U.S. military action tends to be counterproductive. Maybe that’s hard to swallow in hyper-interventionist Washington, but it’s something sober strategists must seriously consider.
Each side of the border, in Iraq and Syria, presents its own challenges.
In Iraq, look for ISIS to dial up its bombing campaign in Baghdad, puncturing any hope for post-war normalcy in the capital. Then, unless Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Shia-dominated regime shows restraint and embraces minorities, expect ISIS once again to exploit Sunni grievances. This would mean demobilizing Shia Popular Mobilization Forces, some Iranian-sponsored. That’s a big if.
In Syria, the risks resemble those of Iraq, only on steroids. Here ISIS remnants will seek to inspire an anti-Kurdish and, by extension, anti-U.S. insurgency in the Euphrates River valley and the country’s northeast. That likelihood increases the longer that thousands of U.S. soldiers and marines remain in Syria. And recent pronouncements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary Mattis seem to indicate the United States will stay in Syria indefinitely.
Staying in north and east Syria means the U.S. military will own all that does or does not happen in the area — the good and the bad. An inadequate power grid: that’s on us. Drought and disease: that's our problem too. I’ve played this game before in Baghdad back in 2007. It rarely ends well. No matter how benevolent Americans view their motivations, the longer its military acts as a de facto occupation force, the more likely it is to fuel an insurgency — especially among Syria’s Sunni majority. ISIS will do all it can to exploit this vulnerability.
There’s one more huge risk in Syria, highlighted by Turkey’s recent ground invasion of Northern Syria. The Turks’ — a NATO ally! — attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish militias might lead to a genuine ethno-sectarian regional war. In that case, the United States would really be caught in the middle — and remember: ISIS, and similar Islamist groups, thrive amid such chaos. No matter how far the Turkish incursion escalates, ISIS most certainly will attempt to revamp and reconstitute under cover of a regional conflagration, just as al-Qaeda has in Yemen.
There are no easy answers in either Mesopotamia or Greater Syria. Which is why one hopes that the administration’s "adults in the room" are piloting the ship and asking the tough questions.
All signs point to what would be the worst possible outcome for U.S. troops and regional stability alike: hastily declaring victory but indefinitely maintaining U.S. troops on the ground. In that case, no amount of tough talk, courageous soldiering or skillful generalship will dodge the next regional insurgency. When Trump’s first term comes to a close, then the U.S. military would find itself traveling back to the future and entering its third decade of war — right back where it started.
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Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer, a former history instructor at West Point, and served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War,"Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge." Follow him on Twitter at@SkepticalVet.