Islamic State murdered more than 350 people in four countries in separate terrorist attacks during the week of June 27. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said the attacks do not “alter the strategy” the Obama administration is pursuing.
The day before the attacks began, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis claimed ISIS has not won “a strategic victory” in over a year. Davis buttressed his claim by rattling off towns seized from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. His claims reflect the administration’s continued use of territory seized as the only “strategic” measure of success against ISIS.
Defining success against ISIS by territory seized misses the broader threat ISIS poses, several national security experts told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Phillip Lohaus, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) told TheDCNF, that by focusing on territory, the Pentagon is “justifying the presidents approach to the problem. It would be inaccurate to say that alone is a good measure of success against ISIS.”
“The strategy of containing ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been successful, taking territory from the group has been successful, making the group less dangerous has not been successful,” Nick Heras, Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told TheDCNF. Heras further explained that as long as ISIS can declare affiliates across the globe, it can retain its narrative as an Islamic movement and pose a major threat to the U.S.
ISIS currently maintains affiliates with thousands of fighters in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and a multitude of other countries. “The problem is we have organized a counter-ISIS campaign primarily focused on Iraq and Syria,” Matthew McInnis, resident fellow at AEI, told TheDCNF. McCInnis elaborated that “the U.S. has not demonstrated the commitment to really think about ISIS as a world-wide problem” and that the U.S. is “not prepared for how ISIS is going to evolve as it loses territory.”
Focusing on territory shows a misunderstanding of the threat ISIS poses, director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI, Dr. Frederick Kagan, told TheDCNF. Kagan explained that ISIS began as a highly effective terrorist organization in Iraq and can quite easily morph from a quasi-state back to its original form. “It’s as if we’ve decided by taking territory back, they won’t be terrorists anymore,” Kagan said.
Kagan further explained that even if the president’s strategy of seizing territory from ISIS works, the conditions for keeping that territory jihadi-free are not being set. In Iraq, heavy penetration by Iranian-backed Shiite militias into the U.S.-backed Iraqi Security Forces is pushing sectarianism to a level not seen since before the 2007 surge. In Syria, sectarian polarization among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds is reaching high levels.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s determination not to leave is ensuring the civil war will likely continue. Situations in both countries are so dire, even an ISIS-free Iraq and Syria may not survive intact.
Territory seized from ISIS in Iraq and Syria should be a facet of measuring success against ISIS, but ultimately it belies the larger metrics the U.S. must consider if it is committed to defeating the terrorist group. Heras said the U.S. needs to measure ISIS’s ability to conduct large attacks across the globe, and to what degree other jihadi organizations are swearing allegiance to the group.
McInnis concurred that global attacks must be considered, as well as ISIS’s ability to inspire foreign fighters. Kagan emphasized metrics should reflect moving towards a successful end-state in both Iraq and Syria.
In celebration of Ramadan, ISIS released an infographic claiming a presence in over 18 countries. The group has tens of thousands of fighters across the globe and has claimed nearly 600 suicide attacks in 2016, far from lacking a “strategic victory.”
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