NBC, Reuters: By the way, the war against ISIS isn't over

About two weeks ago, the question arose as to why the media had not reported on the fact that we had won the war against ISIS. Today, both NBC and Reuters provide an answer to that question, which is that the war has not yet been won. While ISIS has been ejected from its two main urban centers and has lost its grip on strategic positions, the terrorist network has not yet been destroyed — and still has the capability to attack:

Analysts warn that ISIS is retreating into what some call a “virtual caliphate” from where it will attempt to inspire more lone wolf attacks in the West in an effort to remain relevant.

“It’s like a cornered cat that will lash out indiscriminately and viciously to save itself,” said Peter Vincent, a counterterrorism expert and former Department of Homeland Security official. “The war has yet to be won, and if it’s ever going to be won it’s going to take many more years, and many more civilians will lose their lives.”

The catalyst for the question on a lack of coverage of the victory was the declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister’s Haider al-Abadi that his government once again fully controlled Iraqi territory. Less well covered was Abadi’s warning about taking that declaration too seriously as a final status:

But three days after declaring victory, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that the extremists might “erupt again somewhere else” without international cooperation in combating the militants. “ISIS has this unfortunate ability to recruit young people very quickly,” he added.

ISIS took severe losses over the last year as Iraqis forces ejected them from Mosul and the YPG conquered Raqqa. They did not get destroyed, however, as their leadership escaped mostly intact and a significant number of forces escaped these sieges. Reuters reports that the anti-ISIS coalition estimates that the terror network may still have hundreds of fighters operating in the Syria-Iraqi desert. Their calculations seem to be highly fluid, however:

Fewer than 1,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, the United States-led international coalition fighting the hardline Sunni militant group said on Wednesday, a third of the estimated figure only three weeks ago. …

The U.S.-led coalition had said on Dec. 5 that there were less than 3,000 fighters remaining. Iraq declared “final victory” over the group on Dec. 9.

Most of the fighters had been killed or captured over the past three years, the coalition said on Wednesday. It would not respond to a question on whether some fighters could have escaped to other countries, saying it would not “engage in public speculation” but said it was working on preventing that.

The coalition has its own potential self-interest in mind when calculating the threat, but it wouldn’t entirely be a surprise to see the ranks of a defeated terror group desert after a catastrophe either. Even if they number in the hundreds, though, ISIS is still capable of conducting terror operations and attacks on smaller towns and villages. They have been in this position before, and have outlasted “victory” declarations by their enemies before too:

“This is a group that emerged from being an insurgency into a proto-state, and it’s now simply pulling back to what it knows best,” Maher told a counterterrorism conference in London at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank on international defense and security.

The ability of ISIS to shift forms demonstrates its “inherent resilience,” he said.

“This notion that we’re defeating Daesh, that we can begin to think about a post-Daesh reality is not to my mind accurate,” he said, using the pejorative Arabic term for ISIS. “This is an ongoing threat, it’s a live event.”

As I wrote two weeks ago, a declaration of overall victory in the war against ISIS is highly premature:

Let’s assess today’s status quo. The Iraqi army — boosted by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and Kurdish forces — managed to push ISIS out of Mosul and Tal Afar, major accomplishments about which we did write. The Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias then took control of minor towns along the border as ISIS fled in primarily Sunni territory, after which Abadi declared victory. However, no one has yet captured or killed ISIS’ political and military leadership, and a significant number of its forces have disappeared into the desert. That puts us back into the status quo ante of 2011, in which AQI-ISIS sustained itself as a mobile insurgency force outside of cities and towns, rebuilding its strength and biding its time.

And just like in 2011, we are left with primarily Shi’ite military forces holding positions in primarily Sunni areas. Nouri al-Maliki stabbed the Sunnis in the back after our precipitous withdrawal in 2011, effectively pouring gasoline on the sectarian split and leaving the door wide open for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to build his ISIS army. Perhaps Abadi learned a lesson from that, but until (a) Abadi brings Sunnis into a power-sharing arrangement and (b) al-Baghdadi and the rest of ISIS leadership is captured and killed, the war has not been won.

When we have captured or killed ISIS’ leadership and destroyed its fighting forces, then we can declare victory. But we should also wait to see whether Abadi learns from the disastrous previous six years and finds ways to engage with Sunni and Kurdish leadership to prevent any other radical Sunni terror group from gaining political power in western Iraq. Right now Abadi is very dependent on Shi’ite militias to hold Sunni ground, a situation that is highly likely to anger the Sunnis all over again and have them looking for ways to push back against Baghdad. That was the political fracture that allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to return as ISIS in 2013, and the same AQI/ISIS leadership that made those political connections are still at large.

The major battles have been won — but the war is not over.