Despite claims by US President Donald Trump that the Islamic State had been “100%” defeated, the combat death of a US service member in Iraq on August 10 underscored to policymakers and the public that the militant group remains a significant threat.
The US Marine who was killed was reportedly advising and accompanying Iraqi security forces on a planned operation in Nineveh province to weed out Islamic State (ISIS) cells.
For Iraqis, this was no surprise, because there have been bombings and shootings by ISIS against Iraqi soldiers and civilians in the past several months.
Indeed, a panel of UN experts issued a report to the UN Security Council in late July in which they state that ISIS’s centre of gravity remains Iraq where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is believed to be hiding.
He and other ISIS leaders, the report added, aim to “adapt, survive and consolidate in the core area and to establish sleeper cells at the local level” in preparation of a comeback. The report stated that as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters may have escaped the fall of its so-called caliphate. US officials say the number is 14,000-18,000.
Regardless of the differences over the numbers, US officials are clearly worried about an ISIS resurgence. In January, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, appearing before the US Congress with other intelligence leaders, said: “While ISIS is nearing territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, the group has returned to its guerrilla warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide. ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
In response to this assessment as well as one on North Korea saying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would not likely give up his nuclear weapons, both of which contradicted claims by Trump, the US president denigrated his intelligence chiefs and tweeted they should “go back to school.”
However, since Trump’s insults, driven more by politics than national security concerns, he has been more circumspect. James Jeffrey, the US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, led a briefing at the US State Department on August 1 in which he said, despite ISIS’s loss of territory, the risk remained of renewed attacks but he was not reprimanded by the White House.
Jeffrey added that thousands of ISIS fighters are scattered around Syria and Iraq where observers see a “persistent, resilient, rural level of violence.”
Additionally, a US Department of Defence inspector general’s report noted that from April-June, ISIS carried out “targeted assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings and the burning of crops” in Iraq and Syria The report stated that the reduction of US troops in Syria decreased support needed by partner forces in Syria to respond to the renewed ISIS threat.
Although Trump is unlikely to reverse his decision to draw down US troops in Syria to about 400, he wants to keep the current US troop presence in Iraq at about 5,000.
Media reports said Iraqi government officials have privately admitted that their regular army, while vastly improved since its dismal performance against ISIS in 2014, needs more training and that US special forces help the resolve of elite Iraqi units. Hence, these officials want US troops to remain to prevent an ISIS resurgence.
This practical desire by Iraqi officials has run up against Iraqi nationalism on the one hand and the fear that Iraq could be dragged into a US-Iran clash on the other. Trump’s gaffes — flying in and out of Al-Asad Airbase in central Iraq in December 2018 without meeting with Iraqi officials as is customary and stating in a television interview in February that he wants US troops in Iraq to “watch Iran” — became a hot-button political issue in Iraq.
Many Iraqi parliamentarians charged that the United States was disrespectful of Iraqi sovereignty and that Iraqis had no desire to see their country embroiled in a military confrontation with Iran.
Many of those politicians called for all US troops to leave Iraq, putting pressure on high-ranking Iraqi officials, such as President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who said Washington should not involve Iraq in its dispute with Tehran.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Baghdad in May warning of possible pro-Iran militia attacks on US personnel also generated controversy, especially since Abdul-Mahdi, a few weeks later, called for the militias to be put under the control of the regular Iraqi armed forces. One Iraqi Shia militia leader charged that the prime minister was doing Washington’s bidding.
For US troops to remain in Iraq to help in the anti-ISIS campaign, the Trump administration needs to be much more cognisant of Iraqi sensibilities and the fact that Iraq has endured many decades of bloodshed.
The more the United States puts pressure on Iraqi officials, the more they will have to distance themselves from US policy. That would be unfortunate, given that both countries need the cooperation of each other to preclude an ISIS resurgence.
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.