The United States has been combating the Islamic State since 2014 in Iraq and Syria as well as in other locations around the world. This Sunni Islamist insurgent and terrorist group still controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, has established enclaves in Libya, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, and has been able to mount or inspire terrorist attacks in Europe, the United States, and other countries. The U.S. policy towards ISIS has adapted over the past few years in an effort to weaken the group and prevent future attacks in Europe, the United States and around the world.
Although the U.S. led coalition in the Middle East (as well as the Kurds, Shia militia groups, Iraqi Army, rebel Syrian groups, etc.) has succeeded in reducing the size of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – both in numbers of its fighting force and in land area held – there is much more still to be done. The group still receives support from segments of the Sunni population in the area due to the underlying political disputes stemming from the actions of the Iraqi and Syrian governments. While the Islamic State is ever-so slowly being degraded on the battlefield it still has the capability to project terrorism beyond the Middle East with ‘returning fighters’, ‘lone wolves’, and other supporters.
The United States is attempting to combat the Islamic State on a number of fronts – and the U.S. policy towards ISIS has adapted and morphed over time. Most visible are the military actions taken in Iraq, Syria, and now in Libya. Not well-known are the military operations conducted by the United States in eastern Afghanistan against the Khorasan Province of the Islamic State. Of course, there are the occasional special operations missions, drone attacks, and intelligence operations that take place in other areas of the world that don’t see much exposure on the news front.
The ‘train and equip’ efforts of the United States in Iraq and Syria over the past few years have yielded mixed results. The CIA and special operations attempts to field rebel Syrian forces to fight ISIS have seen some embarrassing moments. One can only shake one’s head in amazement with the news of General Austin (former CENTCOM commander) briefing Congress on the status of U.S. trained and equipped rebel Syrian groups, of Jordanian military officers miss-routing weapons for the Syrian rebels, or the many pieces of military equipment provided to the Iraqi army that end up in Shia militia or ISIS fighters possession.
Another avenue for fighting ISIS is in the diplomatic world. The Department of State is deeply involved in this aspect of the anti-ISIS fight. The success in promoting political reconciliation in Iraq is fleeting; the Iranian influence is overwhelming. However, there are diplomatic advances being made – for instance, persuading Turkey to start to confront ISIS and support U.S. efforts (use of Incerlik AFB for a start). We have seen the U.S. policy towards ISIS affect other aspects of our foreign policy. We now seem to be cooperating more with Russia on the Syrian conflict; we seem less concerned with the removal of the current Syrian regime, and we are overlooking Iranian activities in Iraq.
Across the globe the United States is looking to ‘build partnership capacity’ (BPC) through the Title 10 and Title 22 programs that provide training and equipment to other nations of the world. The intent is to improve the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capability and capacity of those nations so they can confront Islamic State affiliates within their own nation’s borders. This BPC approach is complemented with counterterrorism cooperation and activities by U.S. intelligence agencies as well as the U.S. special operations community. Our U.S. policy towards ISIS is having an effect on our relationships around the world as we build ability of other nations to confront ISIS on their home turf.
The very important aspect of the information war cannot be ignored. For a few years the Islamic State dominated this area of the conflict with its mastery of social media platforms. There are some indications that the U.S. is closing the gap in this area . . . time will tell.
A look back at the U.S. policy towards ISIS reveals an effort that seems to have been disjointed and un-coordinated. There are signs of hope – ISIS is losing people and territory in Syria and Iraq, recruiting efforts by ISIS seem to be stalling, the ISIS enclave in Libya is threatened, and the Coalition led by the U.S. is holding strong. However, lots of work remains on the diplomatic front in dealing with Iran, Russia, the political elites in Iraq, and more. Hopefully the steps being taken to build the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capabilities of ‘frontline nations’ will continue and the U.S. and other nations will become more adept at countering the Islamic State’s messaging.
Blanchard, Christopher M. and Carla E. Humud, The Islamic State and U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service (CRS), June 14, 2016. This 33-page report recently published by the CRS provides an excellent summary of the U.S. policy towards the Islamic State.
The image of the drone taken from the Twitter feed of “Operation Inherent Resolve”, DoD, July 1, 2016.