ISIL: You just can’t take them out and it’s over

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

The United States is involved in a “global, and long-term effort to defeat ISIL (the Islamic State), and ensure that other violent extremist groups, such as Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, cannot rise from its ashes.”

That was Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, appearing last Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and others who believe you can go in with military force against the ISIL terrorists, “take them out” and it’s over, should get back to reality and go over McGurk’s testimony.

McGurk described the current status of the Obama administration’s three-year plan to drive ISIL forces from the cities, towns, and villages they seized in Iraq and Syria, destroy the infrastructures they created, and eliminate their leaders.

But that is only the beginning.

There are also the political, diplomatic, and humanitarian challenges involved in restoring normal life to the communities ISIL controlled, including getting refugees to return to their homes, providing aid to reconstruct their lives, and empowering local government so that terrorist groups cannot return.

“We’re not in the business of reconstructing Iraq, of repeating mistakes that were made in the past,” McGurk said, referring to support for a strong central government and spending billions of U.S. dollars on major infrastructure projects that the Iraqis could not sustain and did not represent what local groups wanted.

The new approach, McGurk said, is “decentralizing power as much as possible and empowering local people” to help establish “what comes after ISIL…[and] ensuring its defeat is lasting.”

 “We’ve look at this historically in conflicts like this,” McGurk said, “One of the hardest things to do in the world. It can take years, if ever.”

Beyond that, however, McGurk pointed out the new danger.

As ISIL is pushed out of their major areas, Mosul in Iraq and their overall headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, “they’re losing their central narrative of this caliphate, this kind of state that they’re creating,” McGurk said.

In response, McGurk told the senators, ISIL “will try to inspire, through the Internet, these lone wolf types of attacks. And any deranged individual that wants to commit a crime can suddenly fly the banner of ISIL and get an international headline. And they recognize this, and they’re trying to inspire it.”

ISIL has promoted a kind of jihadi ideology called “takfir,” McGurk said, “in which anybody that disagrees with them deserves to die – that’s what they believe; it’s completely crazy – that is going to be with us for a long time.”  Saturday’s bloody attack in Bangladesh illustrates what McGurk was talking about.

As the U.S. and its partners seize former ISIL territory, “we’re collecting substantial amounts of information about the foreign fighter network, about how it’s put together, who leads it,” McGurk said. “And that helps us really root it out, not only in Iraq and Syria but in the branches and little networks that exist in France and other places.”

But in a broader sense, McGurk recognized the U.S., which can help defeat ISIL on the battlefield, needs “our partners in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia and critical partners of our coalition to fight that ideological battle, and they’re doing so.” The Saudis and the Egyptians—leaders in the Muslim world—will have to play the leading roles with the U.S. assisting them, he added.

McGurk said 40,000 foreign fighters have gone to Iraq and Syria in the last five years and been been indoctrinated with this jihadi ideology.  Almost twice as many from the numbers we’ve seen that went to Afghanistan in the ’80s,” McGurk said, “And we know where that eventually led to, so this is something that we haven’t seen before and you add to it social media and the speed of international travel, everything now. It is an unprecedented challenge.”

The cold fact remains, McGurk said, “ISIL as a threat, its existence as a cellular terrorist organization…will be with us for many years.”

Meanwhile, the daily problems of the current campaigns against ISIL in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere remain more complex than most people realize.

McGurk described meetings two weeks ago in Erbil, in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and the Iraqi national security adviser, Faleh al-Fayyad, discussed with Americans present “difficult political and humanitarian challenges…including the need for diverse communities in Iraq [Shia, Sunni, and Kurd] to work together,” McGurk said.

One reason for ISIL’s success in June 2014, when its small force took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city of more than one million, was that its majority Sunni population resented the Shia governor and the harshness with which he ruled using Shia military and police brought in from the outside.

At the recent meeting, McGurk said, the Baghdad government agreed to pay and equip 15,000 local fighters from Nineveh province for the Mosul campaign, representing Arabs, Kurds, Shabaks, Christians, and Yazidis.

Stabilization programs for a liberated Mosul are being built on models used after the retaking of Tikrit and underway in Anbar province, both Sunni majority areas that ISIL had occupied. There have been examples of some liberating Shia forces mistreating locals, but McGurk said, “The Iraqi government has taken immediate measures to address problems, holding people accountable for abuse and flowing resources where they are needed.”

“In sum,” McGurk said, “we’ve made progress over the last year against ISIL, but there’s a great deal we have left to do on the ground in Iraq and Syria, here at home, and around the world against this unprecedented challenge.”

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