The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS recently announced the transfer of some of its forces from Iraq to northern Africa to counter increasingly lethal affiliates of ISIS and al-Qaeda. While about 2,400 U.S. troops remain in Iraq to advise, train, and supply local forces, all combat operations will cease by December 31. The partial withdrawal of coalition forces provides an opportunity to assess the strategic building blocks in the fight against ISIS. “Daesh is down, but not out” said Combined Joint Task Force – Inherent Resolve Commander Major General John Brennan Jr. on December 9 in announcing the new modified role for coalition forces. The Global Coalition against ISIS was formed in September 2014 to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS. By late 2019, the primary military goals had been mostly achieved in Iraq and Syria. ISIS had lost all of its territorial holdings and most of its fighting capacity. Since then, it has not been able to regain control over territory in either country. Thus, ISIS is indeed down in certain regions, although it remains active and is even growing in others.
However, while coalition forces proved vastly superior to ISIS in direct military confrontations, the region remains politically unstable, despite efforts in state-building, promoted especially by the European Union. Thus, ISIS is “not out” and the threat has not been averted but rather transformed. Three subsequent blogs will examine the most pertinent issues going forward in the battle against ISIS: How the scope of the mission against ISIS was drawn-up and publicly communicated; the issue of transitional justice; and the challenge of the privatization of stabilization operations. Each blog will make recommendations for a better way forward.
The goal of a reaching a functioning democratic system that can deliver basic services to the people of Iraq has yet to be realized. Corruption is at unprecedented levels and much of the population suffers with constant shortages of electricity and water. October’s Parliamentary elections demonstrated a striking lack of faith in the political system. With only 40 percent voter turnout and the Iranian-backed Fatah Alliance contesting the election as fraudulent, tensions are almost guaranteed to escalate further. Simultaneously, pro-Iranian militias have continued to position themselves aggressively against coalition forces and have threatened to attack any U.S. troops remaining in the country. The lack of a central government capable of monopolizing the use of force within its borders makes the continued conflict between Iraqi military forces, pro-Iranian militias, and ISIS insurgents likely, a strikingly similar situation to the months leading up to the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014.
Capacity-building measures have so far failed to enable Iraqi authorities to maintain sovereign control over its borders, with Turkish skirmishes against Kurdish forces repeatedly taking place on Iraqi territory. Lingering conflicts, compromised local policing capabilities, and widespread disenfranchisement from national politics provide fertile ground for ISIS propaganda. This could enable ISIS to return with a vengeance should the region be left to its own devices. In sum, the military operation against ISIS was successful in the short-term by efficiently containing the acute terrorist threat. In contrast, it has largely failed to fulfill the long-term, non-military goals of state- and capacity building, so crucial to defeating the ideology of ISIS.
In comparison to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the transition away from Iraq currently seems to be more gradual. The mandate of the remaining coalition forces will change in a similar fashion to the final stage of the international mission in Afghanistan. However, manpower and equipment seem to remain roughly at the current level, indicating that the U.S. does not yet rely on the Iraqi army to carry the full burden of maintaining security. How smooth the transformation goes will depend in part on whether pro-Iranian militias make good on their threats and whether a stable new government finally emerges.
While some lessons have been learned from Afghanistan, the larger issue of what precisely the scope, purpose, and duration of an anti-terror mission remains a key point for analysis. For long-term stability to emerge, it is obvious that military success is insufficient if it is not combined with a long-term sustained engagement. Since the drivers of conflict have developed over long periods and are not the result but the enabler of terrorism, success in addressing these drivers is a difficult, and in some cases, a generational challenge. The 20 years long Afghanistan mission has shown that even with longer-term commitments stability can remain elusive. Crucially, the duration of military missions is mostly measured along the costs in material, human lives, and the potentially waning domestic political support the longer a mission takes. From that perspective, 20 years is a large commitment. However, seen from the perspective of the often deeply entrenched societal cleavages in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, it could take many decades to approach any form of regional stability. Furthermore, the religious, ethnic, and national enmities are unlikely to be resolved simply by the removal of terrorist threats alone. Complimentary state-building measures, diplomatic efforts to reach reconciliation, and concentrated capacity-building missions would be required. This would include are more finetuned involvement and coordination of local actors, including civil society actors, and a stronger commitment to understanding regional and local complexities.
This is not to dismiss the importance of short-term military missions. Rather, the purpose of the missions and their expectations must be communicated clearly. However, keeping terrorist organizations like ISIS from re-emerging requires longer and more complex commitments. Fostering regional stability and state-building takes even more time and different capabilities. Should it prove too difficult to find political support for such differentiated, long-term operations, decision-makers need to come to terms with the likelihood of repeated engagements in a region when once-defeated threats re-emerge.