Fighting Islamic State
It’s easy to find agreement that Islamic State is a menace. How to definitively defeat the group is a different story. After big chunks of Iraq and Syria fell to the group’s jihadists in 2014, the U.S. put together a coalition to fight them. Operation Inherent Resolve, officially engaging more than 60 nations, is a campaign of airstrikes and other efforts to back the Iraqi military forces and Syrian rebels fighting the group on the ground. Major powers have committed few ground troops to the fight. The strategy has kept their casualties relatively low, limiting related political blowback at home. Critics, including U.S. President Donald Trump, who took office in January, say the cautious approach also diminishes the chances of success.
The operation against Islamic State has begun to make gains. At the same time, the organization has become a wider threat, launching or inspiring terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S. and around the Muslim world. Strategic victories against Islamic State, such as the retaking of the Iraqi city Fallujah in mid-2016, have been hard-won. An offensive launched in October to retake the group’s last major stronghold in the country, Mosul, was still underway in early 2017. So was a U.S.-supported operation initiated in Syria by Kurdish and other forces to unseat the group from Raqqa, the group’s headquarters in that country. The U.S. says Islamic State has lost 47 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria. Yet American commanders have estimated that defeating it will take a decade or two. Fewer than 5,000 military personnel from the U.S. and 2,000 from elsewhere are deployed in Iraq. About a 1,000 more Americans are in Syria. Russia began airstrikes in 2015 against Islamic State in Syria, backing government forces. The U.S. also conducts airstrikes against the group in Libya and, with NATO and Afghan government forces, is battling an affiliate in eastern Afghanistan.
Islamic State was established in Iraq as an affiliate of al-Qaeda in 2004. It attracted Sunnis rebelling against the occupation that followed the U.S.-led invasion the year before. When American forces toppled Saddam Hussein, the country’s Sunni minority lost the dominant role it had held in his dictatorial regime. Like al-Qaeda, which eventually disowned it, Islamic State aims to create a purified Islamic society, but its methods differ. It openly targets Muslim civilians, especially Shiites, whom it considers heretics, but also fellow Sunnis who oppose it. Weakened in 2007 by a surge of U.S. troops combined with an organized Sunni backlash, the group revived with the 2011 departure of coalition forces. It honed its combat skills in the Syrian civil war that began the same year. In 2014, Islamic State began conquering Iraqi and Syrian cities and declared a caliphate, a state that claims dominion over all Muslims. Initially, many secular Sunnis in Iraq fought alongside the group or welcomed it as a way of opposing the Shiite-dominated central government and its record of oppressing other ethnic and religious factions.
The previous U.S. government, led by President Barack Obama, rejected the use of significant U.S. combat forces in the battle against Islamic State. Obama said the U.S. didn’t want to occupy another country again without a defined way out. There is also an argument that a major new foreign-troop presence would breed resentment among Iraqis and Syrians and fuel recruitment for Islamic State. Obama stressed the value of strengthening Mideast allies for the fight. Skeptics say those partners are distracted by other disputes or are too weak or unwilling to be effective. These critics argue that world powers aren’t doing enough to defeat Islamic State. The Institute for the Study of War estimates that 25,000 U.S. troops are needed for the job. Trump says that under his administration, the U.S. will be more aggressive against "radical Islamic terrorism." He has pledged to "eradicate it completely from the face of the earth." In January, he ordered security officials to develop a new plan to defeat Islamic State. The Pentagon delivered preliminary options in February that have not been made public.
The Reference Shelf
- A paper by the Institute for the Study of War proposes an alternative strategy to defeat Islamic State.
- A Congressional Research Service report details U.S. policy toward Islamic State.
- Bloomberg QuickTakes provide overviews of Iraq’s Brittle Nationhood, Iraq’s Oil, Al-Qaeda’s Heirs, Jihad and Syria’s Civil War.
- The New York Times maps attacks directed and inspired by Islamic State around the world.
First published April 30, 2015
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