AMONG PRESIDENT TRUMP’s many fanciful thoughts, consider his declaration last month of victory over the Islamic State. “We did a great job,” he said. “We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria. We’ll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems — along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7,000 miles away.”
Consider, too, the chaos caused by Mr. Trump’s abrupt announcement in December of a pullout of troops from Syria, which led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “We have won against ISIS,” Mr. Trump said in a video on Twitter, adding, “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” He added, “We won, and that’s the way we want it, and that’s the way they want it,” he said, pointing a finger upward, referring to U.S. troops who had been killed in battle.
Now consider the conclusions of the recently released inspector general’s report to Congress on Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State. The lead inspector general, Glenn A. Fine of the Defense Department, reports that although the group lost territory, from April through June it was “resurging in Syria,” and “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq.” The report draws on information from U.S. military commanders who say the Islamic State is coming back in part because “the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain unable to sustain long-term operations against ISIS militants.”
The report says the Islamic State has moved underground; retains 14,000 to 18,000 members; “is likely reestablishing financial networks” in both Iraq and Syria; “maintains an extensive worldwide social media effort to recruit fighters”; and has carried out asymmetric attacks using a “more stable” network for command-and-control and logistics. The report quotes military leaders as saying that the United States has been drawing down just when allies needed more help with training, equipment and developing better intelligence. The drawdown hurt the United States’ ability to secure and monitor the sprawling al-Hol displacement camp in northeastern Syria, where thousands of Islamic State families reside, military leaders told the inspector general. The camp is a major source of recruits for the group, which, U.S. commanders said, is taking advantage of the drawdown to recruit new members.
In the recent presidential debates, some Democratic candidates also vowed to pull back from the “endless wars.” It is true that voters are fatigued from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. But withdrawal must be careful, not hasty; dependent on conditions, not aspirations. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), among those wanting to end the wars, had it right in the last debate when he said he would not conduct foreign policy by tweet, and would not set artificial deadlines that create a vacuum and invite more conflict. Threats still exist in the burning embers of the Syrian war and the Islamic State caliphate, and it would be far better for the president and his challengers to address the world as it is, rather than to engage in wishful thinking.
Michael Morrell: As tensions rise with Iran, here are three lessons from Iraq and my 33 years at the CIA