The Never-Ending War on Terror

Why the U.S. Keeps Fighting the Wrong Battle

Smoke rises from Qarmeed camp after Islamist rebel fighters said a suicide bomber from al Qaeda's Nusra Front drove a truck packed with explosives into the compound and blew it up, in northwestern Idlib province, Syria, April 26, 2015. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters

Earlier this month, the United States announced that it was launching operations to liberate the final strongholds of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria in what seemed to signal “mission accomplished” in the fight against global terrorism. Having finally wound down major combat operations in Iraq in late April, Washington was able to shift the focus of its offensive operations there to its fight against the terrorist group’s last strongholds in Syria and in its “geographic caliphate,” which includes parts of Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Yemen. As President Donald Trump recently said, “We’re going to be coming home relatively soon. We finished, at least, almost [all] our work with respect to ISIS in Syria, ISIS in Iraq, and we have done a job that nobody else has been able to do.”

It may appear as if a global victory over the Islamic State is near, but it is not. What U.S. policymakers never seem to learn is that when it comes to global terrorism, the mission is not yet accomplished. The Islamic State or some successor could one day return to Iraq and Syria to restore its physical caliphate. While the United States was fighting the Islamic State, other groups clearly benefited. Take, for example, the strengthening since 2011 of al Qaeda and like-minded factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, among others, in northwestern Syria. Al Qaeda is seeking to reinfiltrate the ranks of Iraqi Sunni insurgents from its base in Syria. The U.S. intelligence community is already warning of a continued Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which would permit the rise of yet another extremist group in Iraq. A group calling itself the White Flags (in notable contrast to the Islamic State’s signature black flag) has surfaced in the Iraqi provinces of Kirkuk and Diyala. It’s possible that a so-called victory against ISIS may be even more short-lived than the one against its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq.

The United States is failing to win

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