A new report released by the Pentagon this week states that the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS) is taking advantage of President Donald Trump’s troop withdrawals from Iraq and Syria and “rebuilding its capabilities.”
This runs counter to the president’s repeated claims that he has defeated ISIS.
This week’s report acknowledges that the group lost its strongholds in Iraq in 2017 and Syria in 2019, but, it cautions, loss of territory does not spell the eradication of ISIS. On the contrary, the uneven U.S. approach in those conflicts has allowed it to revitalize its networks.
Attributing this to U.S. troop drawdowns as well as the inability of U.S. allies to stave off ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the report notes, “USCENTCOM reported that ISIS militants in both countries employed similar tactics of targeted assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings, and the burning of crops … According to the Office of the DoD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counternarcotics and Global Threats (CN>), ISIS is likely reestablishing financial networks in both countries.”
This is not the first time the Pentagon has presented facts that challenge Trump’s claims.
In August 2018, the Defense Department released a report — one that was essentially echoed by a United Nations assessment — stating that some 30,000 ISIS fighters remained in the region. That is roughly the same number of fighters the groups is estimated to have had in the Levant at its peak.
Despite this, in December of that year — just months after the Defense Department report — Trump said he would be removing U.S. troops from Syria, a move that ran counter to the advice of his own generals, and prompted the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis. Mattis’ departure was followed by that of Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Trump’s advisers eventually talked him out of the troop withdrawal, and by February, he said he would keep between 200 and 400 of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria for a peacekeeping mission, still hoping to “go to zero” by the end of April, which did not happen. Experts told ThinkProgress at the time that this in-between approach would be dangerous and that “the Syrian conflict is not to be trifled with in a superficial manner — either you are all in or not.”
In a March 21 speech, the president tweeted a map of Iraq and Syria — which experts immediately noted contained several inaccuracies — as proof that ISIS would be “gone” by that night.
But this week’s report, which covers the period immediately following that speech — April 1 to June 30 — shows that ISIS in fact “resurge[d]” in Syria. There, local forces have struggled to detain ISIS fighters and secure them and their supporters in camps. In Iraq during the same period, ISIS reorganized its leadership, continued to establish safe havens in the country, and saw “short-term gains” as a result of its clearance operations.
Of course, ISIS is not only present in Syria and Iraq — the group has offshoots and affiliates throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
Notably, the group seems to be growing in strength in Afghanistan. Trump has been looking for a way to pull 14,000 troops out of Afghanistan (or at least half, to start with), with his administration currently engaged in a series of talks with the Taliban, hoping to come up with some sort of peace deal that would allow the United States to bow out of a conflict it started almost 18 years ago.
U.S. military officials on the ground insist that ISIS in Afghanistan poses a real threat to the United States — and certainly the Afghan people.
“This group is the most near-term threat to our homelands from Afghanistan,” one official told the Associated Press in June. He said that ISIS’ “core mandate” was to conduct “external attacks” and that “it [was] just a matter of time” before something happened.
“It is very scary,” they said.
Some in the intelligence community in Washington are dismissive of that view, feeling that ISIS in Afghanistan lack the organizational structure of the group in Syria and Iraq to do real damage to the U.S.
Still, according to a June 30 Pentagon report on Afghanistan, ISIS’ threat is growing within Afghanistan, where it is known as ISIS Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
“ISIS-K made territorial gains in eastern Afghanistan. Regionally the group continues to evade, counter, and resist sustained CT [counter-terrorism] pressure,” it noted.