National Security & Defense

As ISIS Falls, Don’t Forget the Lessons of the Recent Past

Iraqi security forces troops advance in Kirkuk, Iraq, October 16, 2017. (Reuters photo)
The temptation to withdraw from Iraq after the group is defeated will be overwhelming. It should be resisted at all costs.

I’m having a strong sense of déjà vu. Let’s rewind the tape to 2008. My unit, the Second Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, had finally crushed al-Qaeda resistance in our battlespace. Suffering from immense losses in our province and nationwide, jihadists could no longer threaten the central government. In some places, their spirit was broken. Some even proactively surrendered to our troops, giving up the fight they’d sworn to wage until their glorious martyrdom.

It turns out that even fanatical terrorist militias have a breaking point. But when one conflict ends, another often begins. In the final weeks of my deployment, we received word that our Iraqi Army allies were massing to fight our Kurdish Peshmerga allies. The northern sector of our battlespace was poised to become a new killing field. With the common enemy defeated, the old grievances reemerged, and the central government was desperate to claim additional Kurdish territory — to squash Kurdish calls for independence and to strengthen its sectarian hand in the political battles to come. A fight seemed imminent.

Fortunately, it never happened. Thanks to deft diplomacy and healthy fear on both sides, the two military forces stood down. We retained enough influence (we were, after all, the dominant military force on the ground) and our allies enough good sense to avoid yet another civil war.

Nine years later, what’s old is new again. ISIS is crumbling in Iraq and Syria. Its caliphate is in ruins, and its fighters are dead or surrendering:

The Islamic State group once drew recruits from near and far with promises of paradise but now bodies of jihadists lie in mass graves or at the mercy of wild dogs as its “caliphate” collapses. . . . 

At one stage, IS ruthlessly wielded power over a vast swathe of territory straddling Iraq and Syria, but a military onslaught on multiple fronts has seen its fiefdom shrink to a last few pockets.

Since the launch in 2014 of air strikes in Iraq and Syria against the group, a US-led coalition says around 80,000 jihadists have been killed.

While that estimate might be high, the numbers I’ve heard from my own sources are easily in the tens of thousands. Even going back to the first stages of President Obama’s air war against ISIS, American air strikes took a fearful toll. Many of the group’s fighters forgot the hard-earned lessons of the Iraq War and massed out in the open, giving themselves no opportunity to respond as they were slaughtered from the skies. The American people never fully understood the extent of the casualties their forces inflicted on jihadists.

And when a military suffers catastrophic losses without any compensating success, it breaks. Even fanatics have their limits. The New York Times reported last week that ISIS fighters had begun surrendering, violating their pledges to fight to the death:

For an extremist group that has made its reputation on its ferociousness, with fighters who would always choose suicide over surrender, the fall of Hawija has been a notable turning point. The group has suffered a string of humiliating defeats in Iraq and Syria, but the number of its shock troops who turned themselves in at the center in Dibis was unusually large, more than 1,000 since last Sunday, according to Kurdish intelligence officials.

The fight for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, took nine months, and by comparison, relatively few Islamic State fighters surrendered. Tal Afar fell next, and more quickly, in only 11 days. Some 500 fighters surrendered there.

This is good news — great news, even. But in the Middle East, every success carries with it different perils, and so it is today. On the brink of victory against ISIS, Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are once again squaring off over the boundaries and nature of “post-war” Iraq. There are ominous reports of scattered fighting in Kirkuk, and the Iraqi Army appears to be asserting control of the disputed city:

After weeks of threats and posturing, the national government began a military assault on Monday to blunt the independence drive by the nation’s Kurdish minority, wresting oil fields and a contested city from separatists who have been pushing to break away from Iraq.

Though fighting so far has been thankfully limited, the Kurdish drive for independence represents an extraordinary foreign-policy challenge for the U.S. The Kurds are among our most faithful allies in the Middle East, they’ve shouldered an immense burden in the war against ISIS, and they now control vast sections of northern Iraq and Syria. At the same time, our NATO allies in Turkey are resolutely opposed to Kurdish independence, and the Trump administration opposed the Kurds’ decision to hold an independence vote in September.

Betraying Kurdistan is unthinkable. Independence is perilous. ISIS is not yet fully defeated.

Perhaps the best way to plot a course ahead is to remember the road behind. Back in 2008, we won a military victory in Iraq. In the aftermath of that victory, we withdrew our troops from the country, leaving Iraq to its own devices. The result was catastrophic.

We are now on the cusp of winning a third war in Iraq. We successfully deposed Saddam Hussein. We defeated the al-Qaeda insurgency. And now, with allied help, we’re defeating ISIS. But that’s not enough to bring a measure of stability to the region. We have to stay — to preserve our decisive military force and the influence it affords us — and help manage the war’s dangerous denouement. That means limiting Russian and Iranian influence, protecting Kurdish autonomy up to and perhaps even including Kurdish independence, and holding accountable an Iraqi government that still doesn’t know to govern its own country.

“Win and leave” won’t work. There is too much volatility, and the costs of instability are too high. There’s no guarantee that “win and stay” will yield the results we want, but by staying we’ll retain our power and influence. We know all too well the cost of withdrawal. It’s time we discovered the benefits of long-term, strategic engagement.


Will America Finally Do the Right Thing in Iraq?

The Great Muslim Civil War — and Us

Photo Essay: Battle of Hawija

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