The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At turning point in insurgent wars, U.S. general cautions against disengaging from fragile states

Gen. Joseph Votel, center, the head of U.S. Central Command, is retiring after a nearly 40-year military career
Gen. Joseph Votel, center, the head of U.S. Central Command, is retiring after a nearly 40-year military career (Lolita Baldor/AP)

TAMPA — Four years, nine months, billions of dollars and tens of thousands of allied fighters’ lives. As the U.S.-backed Syrian forces declared a triumphant end last weekend to the battle against the Islamic State, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, took a mental inventory.

Millions of Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died or been displaced in the conflict, which erupted less than three years after Washington declared victory in a previous insurgent war. U.S. combat casualties stand at 14. From that grim tabulation, Votel drew one central conclusion: America cannot afford to take its counterterrorism gains for granted.

“I think that the lesson learned from that is we really have to be very careful when we step away from our interests, and if we try to do it too quickly — that’s the cost,” he said in an interview from Centcom headquarters on the eve of his retirement.

The closure of the campaign to eliminate the extremist group’s so-called caliphate coincides with the end of Votel’s nearly 40-year military career, half of which was spent immersed in the counterinsurgency operations that have consumed the Pentagon’s attention since 2001. Like other Centcom leaders before him, he steps down at a moment when the militant threat, while seemingly abated, remains unvanquished and political objectives elusive.

He spoke as the Pentagon prepares to reduce its troop presence in Syria in keeping with orders from President Trump, who has sought to end U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. While national security leaders appear to have secured permission to continue ground operations for some period of time in Syria as they have in Afghanistan, how long those counterterrorism missions will continue remains in doubt.

The U.S. force in Syria now stands between 2,000 and 2,500 troops, officials have said, down from a high in February of close to 3,000. Votel declined to discuss troop numbers.

Trump’s announcement in December that he would swiftly withdraw all troops took military leaders by surprise and generated widespread concern. The president later agreed to allow a smaller residual force to help Syrian partner forces stabilize areas recaptured from militants.

Navy cryptologist Shannon Kent, who died in an ISIS suicide attack in Syria, was torn between family and duty

The military effort reaches a milestone as U.S. diplomats struggle to make progress toward a peace process to end Syria’s larger civil conflict and the State Department seeks to reduce funding for rebuilding former militant strongholds, in another indication of Trump’s desire to wash his hands of the war.

Votel said the end of the battle — announced Saturday by the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the village of Baghouz — was not a surprise to the Islamic State. Experts say the group is already morphing back into an underground insurgent organization.

“We shouldn’t look at this as a surrender,” he said, but rather a “deliberate effort to evacuate people, to take their chances in internally displaced persons camps and in SDF prisons, and try to export out their capabilities as much as they can.”

Up to 20,000 fighters are believed to have dispersed across Iraq and Syria. Already, the group, which was declared defeated in Iraq in late 2017, has mounted assassinations and explosive attacks.

While it’s unclear what role the group’s fugitive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, retains in commanding the group, Votel said the militants “still have leaders, still have resources . . . they still have ideology.”

He said one sign of the persisting threat could be found among the women who defiantly sang songs in support of the Islamic State as they were being evacuated from Baghouz in recent weeks. “They are not broken. They are very radicalized,” Votel said. “We cannot not do something about this.”

Votel, who previously commanded Special Operations Command and the secretive elite troops under Joint Special Operations Command, described a two-pronged mission for a residual force that will remain in Syria: helping the SDF battle militant remnants and secure cleared areas. As part of that operation, the United States will continue to conduct airstrikes in Syria, though at a lesser pace than in recent months.

He said the U.S. government has proposed several arrangements for keeping the peace in northern Syria, where officials fear that Turkey, a NATO ally, could clash with the Kurdish-dominated SDF, which Ankara considers a terrorist threat. Military officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in December over differences with Trump, expressed concern that the U.S. departure would leave the SDF at the mercy of the better-armed Turkish forces.

Saturday’s celebration near Baghouz, where musicians played a Kurdish national anthem and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” held echoes of December 2011, when military leaders gathered in Baghdad to mark the end of the earlier U.S. military mission in Iraq. There, Pentagon leaders’ praise for the sacrifices troops had made to secure Iraq following the 2003 invasion was mixed with worry about whether the country could maintain stability after an abrupt U.S. withdrawal. Less than three years later, much of Iraq’s military collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught.

Votel made reference to Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force, which received continued U.S. assistance after the 2011 withdrawal from a small Special Operations team. “To me, that just is a very clear bell-ringer, that staying engaged at the right level, the right size, with the right partners — it is really important to us,” he said.

Officials hope to keep a force of more than 5,000 troops in Iraq to help local forces contain insurgent threats. They view the situation as even more stark in Afghanistan, where the Taliban controls large areas of the countryside.

The United States has had tens of thousands of troops in other allied countries, including South Korea and Germany, for decades.

Military leaders’ challenge in managing counterterrorism threats — which they have long described as a “generational” issue — is compounded by the Pentagon’s attempt to shift its focus to competing with the large, advanced militaries of China and Russia.

“We shouldn’t do anything forever,” Votel said. “We always have to look at the size and the commitment and make sure that it matches our interest. But we also have to be very cautious stepping away too quickly.”

The general spoke about other conflicts that have proven more lasting and complex than American leaders expected. In Afghanistan, Votel said, any troop drawdowns should be tied to advances in the hoped-for peace process with the Taliban. There are now about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. Late last year, Trump issued an initial order for a significant troop reduction there, but senior officials persuaded him to hold off on that move while diplomats seek to kindle peace talks.

Votel also warned against cutting off U.S. assistance to a Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi militants in Yemen, which critics say has exacerbated the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The Senate recently passed a measure that, if enacted, would cut off military support to that campaign. But military leaders say they can better steer the gulf coalition toward a more responsible operation if they remain involved.

“It doesn’t get better if we step away,” Votel said.