Following the U.S. raid which eliminated ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, we should be asking ourselves, “What comes next?” Invariably, there will be voices crying out for a continuation of the anti-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria. ISIS will no doubt exist after Qurayshi’s death and is likely to continue conducting attacks. But the idea that we have a binary choice between letting ISIS run wild or having a permanent presence in Iraq and Syria is a false one.
First, the environment which permitted ISIS’ explosive growth in 2014 doesn’t mirror conditions today. Other than the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), there were no countervailing military forces in 2014 to stop their advance. Furthermore, the ISF was inept and corrupt, leading to its capitulation at Mosul. Today, tens of thousands of militiamen reinforce the ISF, the Syrian government is not on its last legs, the Kurds are organized and equipped, and Iranian and Russian firepower can be brought to bear. ISIS at its peak was obliterated by these forces; ISIS today won’t make a comeback.
Victory at a military level has been achieved. Research by counterterrorism scholars indicates that killing terrorist leaders like Qurayshi may lead to the long-term breakdown of ISIS as an organized group. Qurayshi’s death follows the elimination of ISIS’ first leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, under then-President Donald Trump’s administration. ISIS hasn’t just lost its leaders, either. It lost its oil fields, a major source of revenue, as well as the population centers from which it recruited and taxed the local populace. The remaining counterterrorism mission should be led by local partners since it is population-centric prevention that will make these gains permanent.
It should speak volumes that Qurayshi was found not in the Syrian desert near al-Tanf, where U.S. troops are deployed, but in Idlib, where the last anti-Assad rebels have held out. U.S. troops’ presence doesn’t align with where the last pockets of ISIS are. In practice, the U.S. forces there are more of a target for drone attacks than an asset in targeting ISIS.
The current ISIS threat isn’t conventional. As was seen by the recent ISIS prison break, the group is forced to operate asymmetrically. U.S. airpower did help its allies on the ground during this operation, but it was a force multiplier. The lion’s share of the fighting was conducted by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a majority-Kurd U.S. partner. The U.S. role isn’t indispensable.
At this point, the burden lies with the Iraqi and Syrian governments to start winning the hearts and minds of their citizens back. The U.S. can provide firepower, but it can’t provide legitimacy. And legitimacy is what is needed to prevent an ISIS resurgence in the long run. In the case of Iraq, where the U.S. presence continues in spite of an Iraqi parliamentary resolution to the contrary, undermining sovereignty runs counter to these efforts.
The uncited role for U.S. troops to be in Iraq and Syria has nothing to do with ISIS, but far more to do with countering Iran. The U.S. presence in al-Tanf, Syria cuts a major supply line that Iran uses to arm its proxies. And the U.S. presence in Iraq splits the anti-ISIS militias in Iraq along pro and anti-U.S. lines. Ironically, despite aiming to counter ISIS, the U.S. presence actually splits the anti-ISIS forces. Withdrawal removes this point of contention and would allow these forces to refocus their efforts on preventing the resurgence of ISIS.
Even in countering Iran, the U.S. military presence in Iraq doesn’t achieve its aims. Iraqi leaders who otherwise are anti-Iranian in their orientation are forced to align themselves with pro-Iran elements in order to pressure a U.S. withdrawal. The natural nationalist orientation of Iraqi politicians is channeled not against Iran, but against the United States.
For the second time, ISIS has been decapitated. But the mission continues without any clear end-state or final objective. Today, ISIS has no territory, its forces are in hiding, and its leaders are dead. If victory hasn’t been achieved now, it will never be — at least not militarily. Washington can still provide intelligence and cooperate with its Iraqi partners against any ISIS remnant. But the time has come to pass the torch to the locals who are better suited to prevent a resurgence. U.S. troops have done their job well. Let them come home.
Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities.