CrISIS 7.

The war against ISIS has been small-scale, rather than a grand effort.[1]  The total American force in Iraq has slowly risen from 275 troops sent as trainers and advisers after the Iraqi Army collapsed in Summer 2014 to about 4,000 today.  American Special Forces spotters are directing American air-strikes in support of both Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters (in both Iraq and Syria).  Others have been raiding ISIS targets and a number of ISIS leaders have been killed: notably the war minister and the finance minister.  An earlier effort at intelligence gathering (either human intelligence or signals intelligence) has led to targeted air attacks on the oil fields that provide much of the funds for ISIS and other sites.  Now, more Special Forces troops are being sent to Syria to bolster the efforts of those Sunnis who are willing to fight ISIS.  The Iraqi government forces don’t look too effective, but they are in the field and moving forward in fits and starts.

The results of this patched together strategy have been more impressive than one might think from the daily news: 26,000 ISIS fighters killed; 40 percent of the territory it once held recaptured; 3 million of the 9 million people inside the caliphate liberated; 30 percent of its revenue lost.[2]  Next on the agenda is a strike at Mosul.

That’s the good news.  What’s the bad news?  First, a large part of the explanation for the sudden expansion of ISIS in Summer 2014 lay in the political divisions, incompetence, and corruption of Iraq’s government at that time.  The US engineered the eviction of the then prime minister Maliki and his replacement by Haider al-Abadi.  However, things have not improved very much.  Corruption and division continue to plague the government.  Recently, Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric (and an old opponent of the Americans) forced al-Abadi to fire many of the government officials most deeply implicated in corruption.  In addition, the Sunni minority—whose “Awakening” greatly contributed to the defeat of the original insurgency—continue to be persecuted by the Shiite government.  All of this can impede the drive on Mosul.

Along the same lines, the Kurds have played a valuable role in the fight against ISIS, but now that success has become a problem.  The 250 additional Special Forces troops bound for Syria are intended to recruit, train, and coordinate Sunni Arabs because it is feared that the intrusion of Kurds into the area will set off ethnic conflicts that could derail the war effort.

Second, radical Islamism of the al-Qaeda-ISIS type has a widespread following in the Muslim world.  At the moment, the most troubling bastion of ISIS adherents outside the caliphate itself is in Libya.  Adherents of ISIS have been bolstered by ISIS fighters sent from Syria.  They have seized the oil port of Sirte.  They appear to be attempting the conquest of the Sirte oil region.

Third, the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels have led to reports that ISIS has sent a sizable group of terrorists to conduct operations in Western Europe.

It is natural to ask if, in the waning days of the Obama administration, victory or something like it will be in sight by the time his successor is inaugurated.  That would surely add to his legacy.  However, the continuing governmental disaster in Baghdad and the refusal of the Shiites to make a just peace with the Sunnis is a problem that is not going to go away.  The same is true of violent radical Islam.  Frustrating, infuriating, and humiliating as has been the Obama administrations course in the fight against ISIS, it is only a campaign in a larger, longer-running war.  Many of the dilemmas of engagement in this fight will plague the next administration.

[1] “The war against ISIS,” The Week, 6 May 2016, p. 11.

[2] Apparently, there is a military solution to the problem of ISIS.  The same may be true of the Syrian civil war.

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