Elimination of ISIS ‘could take years,’ Pentagon inspector general says
The Islamic State has lost the vast majority of physical territory it once held, but fully defeating the terrorist group and rooting out sleeper cells that have spread across the Middle East and Africa “could take years,” the Defense Department inspector general said in a sweeping report Monday that suggests final victory remains far off.
The IG said that a “reduced, covert version” of the Islamic State also known as ISIS continues a presence not just in Iraq and Syria but also in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. ISIS, the report says, has evolved “from a land-holding terrorist entity to an insurgency” that operates numerous clandestine cells around the world.
“Clearing terrorists from remote and largely ungoverned terrain is a low and difficult process, and eliminating ISIS from rural Iraq and Syria could take years,” the report says.
The Pentagon in recent months has put forward two separate narratives in describing the fight against ISIS, which began in 2014 under then-President Obama and has continued under President Trump. At the time the U.S.-led, international operation began, ISIS held vast swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria and boasted a sizable fighting force.
Now, Defense Department officials say ISIS has been “territorially defeated,” and has lost nearly all of the land it once used as a base of operations.
But officials also have said that the transformation of the Islamic State into an underground terrorist group presents new challenges. The IG described the recapture of ISIS-held territory the result of a relentless U.S.-led bombing campaign and ground operations inside Iraq and Syria as just “one phase” of the mission.
“There are significant challenges to developing capable and self-sufficient security forces in Iraq and Syria, and questions remain about the length of time it will take to train forces capable of preventing an ISIS resurgence,” the report says. “There are also significant challenges to U.S. efforts to address non-military issues, such as the promotion of democratic governance and civil society and the stabilization of liberated areas. These issues can also affect the ability of security forces to defeat ISIS. Ongoing political uncertainty in Iraq and civil war in Syria also complicate efforts to confront an ISIS insurgency. Therefore, the territorial defeat of ISIS is just one phase of what could be a lengthy campaign to achieve the ‘enduring defeat’ of ISIS.”
In Iraq specifically, deep-rooted issues with the Iraqi Security Forces make it difficult to eradicate the pockets of ISIS fighters that remain across the country.
“The ISF continues to suffer from poor management of intelligence; corruption and ... overlapping command arrangements with conflicting chains of command; micromanagement; and inefficient and inadequate systems for planning and transmitting orders,” the report says. “These deficiencies are identified more universally as critical problems that undermine military effectiveness in developing countries.”
It’s estimated that ISIS still has somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters scattered across the region. Even before the release of Monday’s report, top military officials had stressed that it’s far too early to declare the group dead and buried.
“Despite recent successes against ISIS and positive trends, we know there’s actually much work to be done,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said last month. “ISIS is far from defeated and has a presence in countries from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Its ideology continues to inspire home-grown violent extremists in many of our countries.”