On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to Mosul to claim victory in the battle against ISIS. A few ISIS die-hards remain holed up in Mosul, but he is surely right that the battle over this city, which began nine months ago and has lasted longer than the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II, is more or less finished. (Stalingrad: 200 days. Mosul: 266 days, as of Sunday.)
Seeing the pictures of what Mosul looks like now reminded me of a trip to Ramadi that I took in 2007, almost exactly a decade ago, shortly after its liberation from al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Here is what I wrote: “Buildings are either entirely destroyed or badly damaged. Twisted girders jut into the sky. Piles of rubble are everywhere. Water sits in the streets; the water mains have been broken by countless explosions of buried IEDs. There are crater holes from roadside bombs every few feet.”
I was nevertheless optimistic about the outcome in Anbar Province, of which Ramadi is the capital, because simply wresting control of major population centers from al-Qaeda was a major accomplishment that seemed impossible to contemplate even a year earlier. In hindsight, my optimism was misplaced. Not because “the surge” wasn’t successful: it was. What I could not have predicted was that Barack Obama would win the presidency and pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, thus creating a power vacuum that allowed AQI to rise from the ashes.
That is a lesson worth keeping in mind today, when ISIS, the latest incarnation of AQI, appears to be on the ropes not only in Iraq but in Syria. Rumors of the organization’s demise have been exaggerated before and, sadly, may be exaggerated today. It has shown the staying power of a particularly virulent form of cancer.
A report from West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center looked at what happened in 16 Iraqi and Syrian cities that were previously liberated from ISIS control. “From each city’s date of liberation from the Islamic State until April 2017,” the authors find, “the Islamic State reported that it carried out 1,468 separate attacks in these 16 cities.” That’s a lot of attacks for a group that has supposedly been defeated!
What the West Point report suggests is that ISIS will now focus not on controlling territory but, rather, on undertaking terrorist attacks—and not only in Iraq and Syria. To show its continuing relevance, ISIS may now feel more compelled than ever to pull off spectacular terrorist operations in the West. As the New York Times notes, “the Islamic State has partly compensated for its losses at home by encouraging affiliates abroad—in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria and the Philippines—and by activating operatives elsewhere.”
Combatting ISIS operatives abroad will require the usual mix of security and intelligence operations combined with attempts to counter its malign influence in the battle of ideas—to prevent the radicalization of more Western youth. But to prevent ISIS—or another radical Sunni group, such as al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, formerly known as the Al Nusra Front—from rising again in Syria and Iraq it will be necessary to prevent those countries from falling under the grip of Shiite extremists.
That may sound paradoxical, given that radical Sunnis and Shiites slaughter each other, but it’s true that extremists of both sects feed off each other. The existence of one justifies the existence of the other. That is why a key part of the surge’s success in 2007-2008 were the steps that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker took to strong arm then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into reaching out to Sunnis and blunting the threat from Shiite extremists. Unfortunately, after the U.S. departure in 2011, we lost any leverage over Maliki, and the result was that he pursued a sectarian agenda that pushed many Sunnis into the arms of a resurgent ISIS.
The battle of Mosul has been hard enough. It will be harder still to prevent this cycle of radicalization from occurring again. Haider al-Abadi is more moderate than Maliki, but Shiite extremists backed by Iran continue to exercise a disproportionate influence in Baghdad. There is every reason to fear that an incompetent, sectarian central government will neglect—or, even worse, oppress—Sunni areas as soon as they have been cleared of ISIS control. Unless Baghdad makes a significant effort to rebuild battered cities like Mosul and to give their representatives a significant say in policymaking, Sunni grievances will fester again, providing a perfect petri dish for the rise of ISIS 2.0.
It will not be easy to avoid such an outcome, and it will require a significant U.S. presence in Iraq going forward. That means not only a diplomatic, intelligence, and political presence but also a military presence. Without having significant forces on the ground it will be hard to counter the Iranian-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. The U.S. will need to champion Sunnis’ legitimate rights and assure them that they will not once again be at the mercy of Shiite ethnic cleansing squads.
And that, in turn, will require the U.S. government to embrace nation-building—a term even more neuralgic for Donald Trump than it was for Barack Obama. Will Trump put aside his campaign rhetoric and commit the U.S. to an active role in Iraq—and Syria—for years going forward? Who can say? But that is what it will take to truly defeat ISIS.
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