At the height of its power in 2014, ISIS was filthy rich, scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in bank heists and hundreds of millions more in oil sales, kidnapping-for-ransom, extortion, and even artifact sales. In June 2014, ISIS fighters all but demolished the Iraqi army in northern Iraq, an embarrassing rout for a military that U.S. taxpayers built and financed at a cost of $25 billion.
Today, ISIS is anything but a triumphant force. After four years of combat, the group’s militants are tired, dirty, smelly, hemmed into smaller and smaller patches of territory in the remote Syrian countryside, and increasingly trying to escape inevitable death by blending into the civilian population. At the time of writing, ISIS is down to its last square mile of territory. Sooner or later, 100 percent of the fake caliphate will be retaken.
Seeing these gains, President Donald Trump wants out. If reports are true, U.S. troops will leave eastern Syria by April. This has predictably caused heart palpitations among military officials, the national security blob, and the usual suspects who have never seen a U.S. intervention they wanted to end.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the outgoing CENTCOM combatant commander, apparently has some issues with the withdrawal as well. Speaking to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, Votel said that Trump’s decision to remove the troops “would not have been my military advice at that particular time … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly.”
Votel is certainly entitled to his professional opinion. But it’s perfectly legitimate to inquire whether the general’s paradigm about the terrorism problem is the right one.
“The caliphate still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network,” he points out. Nobody would dispute the Islamic State still has fighters, facilitators, and resources. But ground troops and an endless counterinsurgency campaign are not required to counter terrorism threats. The U.S. military can monitor, target, and eliminate any anti-American threats anywhere the world.
If declaring mission success is measured in terms of killing every last lunatic who calls himself a member of the caliphate or draining every last dollar out of ISIS’s bank account, then the counter-ISIS mission will go on and on and on. That may not be a problem for the insiders in Washington who are perfectly comfortable with mission creep on autopilot, unlimited expenditure of resources (despite the U.S. having a national debt that is $22 trillion and counting), and mimicking the 18th-century British Empire, but this myopic view is not exactly a position the American people would subscribe to.
The measure of success is not whether ISIS can still claim fighters and money, but rather whether the U.S. homeland and interests overseas are protected. There are dozens upon dozens of terrorist groups around the world that launch attacks against civilians, make money in a number of illicit ways, and in some cases control territory. Most of them, however, are either focused on local concerns or understand that attacking Americans would be like signing their own death warrant.
Protecting the American people doesn’t require a constant U.S. troop presence at considerable risk to our soldiers and considerable expense. All it takes it good intelligence work, information collaboration across federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, common-sense security policies along ports-of-entry, and pragmatic partnerships with governments around the world.
“They [ISIS] still have this very powerful ideology, so they can inspire [attacks],” says Votel. Again, this is no doubt true. In its heyday, the Islamic State managed to attract tens of thousands of foreign fighters by deliberately targeting the disaffected and pilfering fighters from its competitors. Despite ISIS’s stinging defeats on the battlefield during the last three years, 50 foreign fighters are still reportedly crossing into Syria every month to enlist with the group.
A perverse ideology, however, can’t be defeated by foreign boots on the ground. It’s not a problem that can be bombed to smithereens, captured and prosecuted in court, or sniffed out by counterinsurgency doctrine. Ideologies die when those who are most harmed by them—in ISIS’s case, the Muslim world—proactively address them in an honest, sincere, and comprehensive way over the long-term. American soldiers can’t and shouldn’t do it for them.
If Washington and its partners in the Middle East want to vanquish the ideology behind ISIS, Arab leaders can no longer afford to avoid tackling the deeply rooted, systemic crises (horrible economic inequality, low economic opportunity, political systems seeped with corruption, sectarianism, poor public services, a restless youth bulge who want a better life than their parents, etc.) that have made the region such an epicenter of terrorism and violence.
Votel also said, “We want (ISIS) to be able to be controlled or addressed by the indigenous partners…that when they are capable of handing this threat on their own, without our assistance, that will be another key criteria indicating to me that we have accomplished our mission of defeat of ISIS.”
On the overarching concept, he is right: the “indigenous partners” have the primary responsibility to ensure the Islamic State is beaten down to the point it can be contained and managed. However, it’s highly unlikely these indigenous forces will take charge of the problem if the United States remains in the immediate area and maintains military bases in the vicinity.
Why would they? If their partner is willing to do much of the work, why would the Iraqi and Syrian governments step up to deal with the political, social, and economic issues that have uplifted ISIS and helped the organization continue to operate?
If anything, Damascus, Baghdad, the Syrian Kurds, the Turks, and the Sunni Arab tribes would have a bigger incentive to eviscerate ISIS if Washington withdrew its troops. The Islamic State, after all, is primarily a significant national security threat to the region’s ruling regimes, not to the United States.
As we continue to hear the naysayers in Washington vocally oppose a U.S. departure from Syria, we would all be wise to remember that ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. If U.S. intelligence discovers a credible and imminent ISIS plot against Americans, the Trump administration should not (and would not) hesitate to interdict it. But maintaining an American military presence in the eastern Syrian desert for the next 50 years (or more) is more likely to delay the security handover to local partners than it is to eradicate terrorism.
It also happens to be unnecessary, costly, and dangerous for the United States since it prevents us from focusing on higher priorities, like deterring great power conflict.