Nearly six months after President Donald Trump
declared ISIS defeated, the terror organization is making a comeback in both Iraq and Syria, according to a new report from the Pentagon inspector general's office — and that's largely thanks to the president's decision to prematurely pull the rug out from under local security forces at a critical time.
The quarterly OIG
report on the U.S.-led counter-ISIS campaign Operation Inherent Resolve, which covers three months from April to June following Trump's late-February victory lap, states that the terror group has “continued its transition from a territory-holding force to an insurgency” in Syria and solidifying its insurgent capabilities while rebuilding its command and control capabilities in Iraq.
U.S. Central Command reported that while ISIS militants in both Iraq and Syria ” did not carry out large-scale conventional attacks or attempt to take and hold territory for more than brief periods,” militants engaged in “targeted assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings, and the burning of crops” with a force of between 14,000 and 18,000 “members” split between the two countries, per the report.
It's the relative weakness of regional partner forces that has allowed ISIS to rise from the ashes its former territorial caliphate: According to the OIG, both Iraqi security forces and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “were unable to sustain long-term operations against ISIS militants,” OIR officials told the investigators: “In Iraq, the ISF often lacks the ability to maintain hold forces in territory cleared of ISIS militants, while in Syria, the SDF was 'initially limited' in personnel, equipment, and intelligence to confront ISIS's resurgent cells.”
And who's responsible for the shortfalls in training and equipment? Simple, apparently: “The reduction of U.S. forces in Syria decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when they need more training and equipping to respond to the ISIS resurgence.” From the OIG report:
As it drew down forces, CJTF-OIR stated that the reduction in personnel, equipment, and a change of mission to counterinsurgency required the Special Operations Joint Task ForceOIR, a component of CJTF-OIR, to perform more partnered training, equipping, and reinforcing of the SDF to enable the SDF to conduct counterinsurgency operations. CJTF-OIR said that the partial drawdown had occurred at a time when these fighters need additional training and equipping to build trust with local communities and to develop the human-based intelligence necessary to confront ISIS resurgent cells and insurgent capabilities in Syria.
According to CJTF-OIR, the drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria also reduced the ability of CJTF-OIR to maintain “visibility” at the al Hol IDP camp, forcing it to rely on third-party accounts of the humanitarian and security situation there. CJTF-OIR said that it lacks the resources to monitor the camp directly, and that the SDF was only capable of providing “minimal security”—a deficiency that CJTF-OIR said has created conditions that allow ISIS ideology to spread “uncontested” in the camp.
If this sounds familiar, it should: President Barack Obama's withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 (in
accordance with the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement that President George W. Bush signed into law and not, it's worth noting, Obama's wishes) was premature given the state of Iraqi security forces., allowing ISIS to carve a bloody swatch across the northern part of the country and establish a territorial candidate.
Indeed, even prior to Trump's surprise withdrawal announcement in December 2018, ISIS forces were “exploiting the chaotic and unresolved security situation” in Iraq to reconstitute itself, according to an
analysis by in Jane's Intelligence Review, regaining a territorial foothold in the country's northern Qara Chokh mountains despite the loss of its primary stronghold in Mosul the previous year.
Trump's surprise withdrawal announcement
spurred the resignations of both then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose counsel on Syria's stability Trump reportedly ignored, and Brett McGurk, the Trump administration's top envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS who had previously described a premature withdrawal as “reckless” until the U.S. ” the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.”
It's worth noting that OIG report indicates Iran played a substantial role hindering reconstruction in Iraq. Indeed, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo's decision to order the departure of non-emergency personnel from U.S. facilities across the country “reduced U.S. Mission Iraq's portfolio to four objectives: defeating ISIS, countering malign Iranian influence in Iraq, supporting religious and ethnic minorities, and maintaining a viable platform for diplomatic operations.”
“The departure of Embassy personnel this quarter eroded the ability of Embassy Baghdad and Consulate Erbil to manage humanitarian assistance and stabilization efforts in Iraq,” the report says, noting that the number of U.S. direct hires dropped from 563 to 312 and included the loss of 21 out of 26 USAID personnel. “USAID reported that the departures have weakened oversight and complicated the remote management of humanitarian programs by limiting engagement with key stakeholders, such as humanitarian leadership in country, and a large portfolio of UN and NGO partners.
But regardless of outside meddling from Iran, the OIG report offers a stark warning to any future declarations of “victory” over ISIS. The United States has certainly
conducted nation-building with relative success since World War II, from Germany and Japan to Bosnia and Kosovo. But in Syria an Iraq (again), as with Afghanistan, the U.S. simply aren't sticking around long enough to give partner forces what they need — and, in making a hasty exit, U.S. officials are planting the seeds of their future return.