Does ISIS remain a threat to the U.S. and Europe?

John B. Quigley
Tribune News Service, April 18, 2019

Terrorist threats are a cause for concern, but recent claims of a looming major uptick coming out of the Middle East are overblown.

The claims follow the loss of territory by ISIS, whose initials stand for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The significant patches of land once held by ISIS in those countries have now evaporated. In Syria in recent days, ISIS has lost its last small sectors of land.

The concern one hears is that ISIS fighters will now switch toward mounting off-on attacks against civilian targets in Europe and North America.

A report issued in February in the Netherlands by its National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism makes precisely this prediction. That office publishes an estimate every quarter titled “Terror Threat Report Netherlands.” Its February 2019 report predicts that ISIS fighters with roots in Europe will foment attacks there, and perhaps across the Atlantic Ocean as well.

Any new and higher such threat from ISIS, however, remains a matter of speculation. In recent months, even as ISIS territory was being reduced, Europe has experienced violent attacks by single individuals, some of them Muslim, that have killed small numbers of victims. But more substantial assaults of this type have not been seen in Europe.

ISIS is now far less able to mount attacks in the West after losing its territory. Holding land was key to ISIS success. The prospect of a life in territory governed by ISIS principles was held out to potential adherents as attractive.

That recruiting tool is now gone. ISIS was able to extract wealth from the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, especially by selling oil. That money let ISIS promote its activities around the world. So while ISIS may try to arrange for violent acts outside the Middle East, its capacity for doing so is diminished by its loss of territory and income.

The concern about the return of jihadists with European roots has left European governments wondering what to do with them.

President Trump has called on Europe to repatriate them. European leaders want them to stay where they are and be tried there for crimes they have committed. But many are held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria, which lacks the capacity to deal with them. The dilemma is most acute in regard to women from Europe who married ISIS fighters.

Holding nationality in European countries, many want to return. Britain is now considering whether to revoke the British citizenship of one such woman to keep her from returning.

Opposition politicians in Britain object that this would render her stateless. International law bans citizenship revocation that leaves a person stateless.

The issue has also arisen, though on a smaller scale, for the United States. It currently is trying to decide whether to allow the return of a Yemeni-American woman who has come out of ISIS territory in Syria.

To the extent that ISIS still poses a threat, there is much that can be done to counter it. ISIS exploits our own actions in the Middle East to recruit new adherents.

Trump, unfortunately, has a knack for giving ISIS issues to use to incite against the United States. Last year, as Israeli snipers shot 6,000 Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border — shootings that the U.N. called “war crimes” — Trump insisted that Israel was doing nothing wrong.

Last May, Trump moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a city that few in the Arab world see as belonging to Israel. More recently, Trump said that Israel owns the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967. Actions like these are a gift to ISIS.

Even though ISIS is weakened, it remains a terrorist force. We should stop helping it recruit.

John B. Quigley is a professor at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and a leading scholar on U.S. relations with Russia and the Middle East, His op-ed was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

lslamophobia surges amid a ‘politics of fear’

Huge refugee flows to Europe coupled with broadening attacks on Western civilians in the name ISIL have led to growing fear-mongering and Islamophobia, accordint to a new report released January 27. Attacks and the massive exodus of refugees as a result of the Syrian conflict were causing governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security, Human Rights Watch said in its 659-page World Report 2016.

As rights are rolled back amid the “politics of fear,” authorities are “alienating populations crucial to counterterrorism efforts,” executive director Kenneth Roth said in the report. “These backward steps threaten the rights of all without any demonstrated effectiveness in protecting ordinary people,” he said.

More than one million refugees, many of them Muslims, have fled to Europe by sea in the past year. Since deadly attacks on civilians in Paris in November and the U.S. city of San Bernardino in December, tensions have escalated. Roth said public discourse has been filled with “voices of hatred and fear of Muslims, for whom the refugees are surrogates.”

“These messages need to be countered foremost because they are wrong,” he said. “In the modern world of easy air travel and rapidly shifting populations, Muslims are part of almost every vibrant community. Like everyone, they should not face discrimination.”

The report also described Europe’s preoccupation with new refugees as a possible threat as “a dangerous distraction from its own home-grown violent extremism, given that the Paris attackers were predominantly Belgian or French citizens.”

“The roots of radicalization are complex but relate in part to the social exclusion of immigrant communities — the persistent discrimination, hopelessness and despair that pervade neighborhoods on the outskirts of some European cities, and particularly the disjuncture between expectations and prospects among subsequent generations,” Roth said.

– Al Jazeera, January 31, 2016
PeaceMeal, March/April 2016

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In the rise of Islamic State, no single missed key but many strands of blame

By the time the United States withdrew from its long, bloody encounter with Iraq in 2010, it thought it had declawed a once fearsome enemy, the Islamic State, which had many names and incarnations but at the time was neither fearsome nor a state. Beaten back by the American troop surge and Sunni tribal fighters, it was considered such a diminished threat that the bounty the United States put on one of its leaders had dropped from $5 million to $100,000.

Yet now, five years later, the Islamic State is on a very different trajectory. It has wiped out a 100-year-old colonial border in the Middle East, controlling millions of people in Iraq and Syria. It has overcome its former partner and eventual rival, Al Qaeda, first in battle, then as the world’s pre-eminent jihadist group in reach and recruitment.

It traces its origins both to the terrorist training grounds of Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan and to America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it achieved its resurgence through two single-minded means: control of territory and unspeakable cruelty. Its emblems are the black flag and the severed head.

Since last spring the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been expanding beyond its local struggle to international terrorism. In just two weeks, it did that in a spectacular way: first claiming responsibility for downing a Russian planeload of 224 passengers, then sending squads of killers who murdered 43 people in Beirut and 129 in Paris.

As the world scrambles to respond, the questions pile up like the dead: Who are they? What do they want? Were signals missed that could have stopped the Islamic State before it became so deadly?

Assigning blame for the now terrifyingly complex puzzle of the Islamic State has been part of the political discourse in the United States and beyond. The decision by President George W. Bush and allies to marginalize Iraq’s political and military elite angered and disenfranchised some who formed the heart of the Islamic State. More recently, President Obama and his allies have been criticized as not taking seriously enough its rise.

There were, in fact, more than hints of the group’s plans and potential. A 2012 report by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency was direct: The growing chaos in Syria’s civil war was giving Islamic militants there and in Iraq the space to spread and flourish. The group, it said, could “declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”

“This particular report, this was one of those nobody wanted to see,” said Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who ran the defense agency at the time. “It was disregarded by the White House,” he said. “Frankly, it didn’t meet the narrative.”

“There was a strong belief that brutal insurgencies fail,” said William McCants of the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on the Islamic State, explaining the seeming indifference of American officials to the group’s rise. “The concept was that if you just leave the Islamic State alone, it would destroy itself, and so you didn’t need to do much.”

The two central figures in the Islamic State’s ascendance both came from Iraq, seemingly a key to top leadership in the Islamic State. The first, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a onetime thief, was a tattooed Jordanian and a reformed drinker, perhaps more violent and more apocalyptic in his outlook than Osama Bin Laden. With his videoed decapitations and wanton sectarian killings of Muslim civilians, the United States raised the bounty on him to $25 million, equal to that on Bin Laden. An American airstrike killed Zarqawi in June 2006. Four months later, his successors declared the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq.

The full details of the second figure, an Iraqi now known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s current and reclusive leader, are incomplete, but he is known more as a quiet Sunni cleric. Apart from his piety, one fact is not in dispute: Mr. Baghdadi is a former inmate of Camp Bucca, the American prison in southern Iraq now widely agreed to have been crucial in the formation of Iraqi jihadists, housed in proximity behind blast walls and spools of razor wire. It earned names like “the Academy” or “the Jihadi University,” where the United States would unintentionally create the conditions ripe for training a new generation of insurgents.

In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, the authors Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan quote Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, a prison commander in Iraq: “If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it. We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and most importantly, we kept them from being killed in combat.”

Each of the two leaders was shaped by the larger forces of the Islamic world, in particular religious zeal, Al Qaeda, and America’s war with Iraq. Each rejected the secular culture of the West, which many say was the target of the attacks in Paris.

CIA Director John O. Brennan recounted in a recent speech to a Washington think tank that Al Qaeda in Iraq — one early name for the Islamic State — was “pretty much decimated when U.S. forces were there in Iraq. It had maybe 700 or so adherents left,” he said, “and then it grew quite a bit.”

Americans wanted to believe that the Iraq war had ended in triumph, and the troops were soon withdrawn. But almost immediately tensions began rising between the Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — supported by the United States and Iran. Salaries and jobs promised to cooperating tribes were not paid. There seemed little room for Sunnis in the new Iraq. The old Sunni insurgents began to look appealing again. The group entered a period of concentrated reflection and developed a detailed, militarily precise plan for resurrection in 2009. Baghdadi was named head of the Islamic State in 2010. Then a civil war broke out in Syria — a new and promising front for the Islamic State’s ambitions.

Protests erupted against the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in 2011 amid the wider Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. The world struggled with how to help — with a weary America unenthusiastic about engaging anymore. After a brutal crackdown by government forces, Syrian protest groups morphed into fighters. At first many were army defectors and locals, focused on defending their communities and over-throwing President Assad. But foreign fighters, some steeped in extremist ideologies, often proved to be the best organized and funded, and they gained momentum on the battlefield.

One distinguishing trait of the Islamic State, as opposed to other groups like the Nusra Front and the smaller, more secular groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, was its focus on establishing the structures and trappings of a state and giving that priority over battling Syrian government forces. Early on, the Islamic State’s rivals underestimated it, only to face deadly attacks from the group later.

They were not the only ones. President Obama likened the group to the “J.V. team,” and the Islamic State fighters often did seem like buffoons, especially the foreign ones. But some were serious, determined and ideologically motivated. The Islamic State did, in fact, succeed in building the semblance of a state, providing services as well as imposing the harshest of rules. It worked to self-finance, through oil, trade in priceless antiquities and, many say, simple criminal enterprises like kidnapping and extortion.

And, as it always promised, the Islamic State was brutal, frightening fellow groups and the wider world with practices like sexual slavery, immolations, crucifixions and beheadings. Those included killings, well-produced on video and spread through social media, of the journalist James Foley and others, ending often with a shot of a bloody severed head.

The climax of the Islamic State’s rise came in June 2014, when it routed the Iraqi military police and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, erasing the century-old border between Iraq and Syria established after World War I. The caliphate had been declared the month before, but soon after Mosul’s capture, Bagdhadi arrived in a black SUV at the Nuri Mosque in Mosul in a rare appearance to make that state formal.

There was another victory, which had played out behind the scenes in bitter missives between Al Qaeda central, the Islamic State and its Qaeda-sponsored affiliate, the Nusra Front. Baghdadi rejected demands from Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death, that he step in line under his rule. No, Baghdadi said, the Islamic State was supreme and separate.

America has been bombing the Islamic State for over a year. Russia has joined the fight, for its own murky reasons. France has begun a new round of airstrikes of uncertain effectiveness.

At United States Central Command — the military head-quarters based in Tampa, Florida, that is in charge of the American air campaign — intelligence analysts have long bristled at what they see as deliberate attempts by their bosses to paint an overly optimistic picture of the war’s progress. A group of seasoned Iraq analysts saw the conflict as basically a stalemate and became enraged when they believed that senior military officers were changing their conclusions in official Central Command estimates to contend that the bombing campaign was having positive effects. The group of analysts brought their concerns to the Defense Department’s inspector general, who began an investigation into the complaints.

The question for the Islamic State, after years of expansion and success on its terms, even evidence of using mustard agent, is whether Paris proved one move too far — a brutality the world will not tolerate. The group has already been under pressure from several angles. Aerial attacks have damaged its moneymaking oil infrastructure. And after losing the symbolic prize of Kobani last year in northeastern Syria and the Iraqi city of Tikrit in the spring, it has lost large stretches of crucial Syrian territory along the Turkish border to Kurdish fighters backed by American airstrikes.

The organization has lately shown signs of strain, according to residents of Raqqa and family members who have fled the area but keep in contact with them. It is trying to press-gang boys as young as 15 or 16 into fighting the Kurds. It is shutting down more and more Internet cafes, seeking to control the flow of information. It has even resorted to plaintive advertisements on social media, showing pictures of Syrian refugees packed into boats bound for Europe and excoriating them for fleeing to the lands of “the infidels.”

And while many of those refugees are fleeing the Assad government’s troops and other combatants, many others have indeed come from “the state” and are voting against life there with their feet — a powerful indictment of the caliphate’s promise to create utopia for Muslims from around the world.

Like any organization that expands quickly and then faces set-backs, it has internal tensions. Some complain that it is controlled by Iraqis who see Syria as a convenient province.There are reports of dozens of executions and imprisonments of Islamic State fighters trying to flee the group. There are complaints about salaries and living conditions, disputes over money and business opportunities, allegations that commanders have absconded with looted cash and other resources.

And there is growing anecdotal evidence that even some members of the group — particularly locals who may have joined out of opportunism or a sense that it was the best way to survive — have become disgusted, like the larger world, by its extreme violence.

“I still feel sick,” Abu Khadija, a Syrian fighter for the Islamic State, said recently after witnessing the beheadings of dozens of war prisoners near the Syrian-Iraqi border. “I can’t eat, I feel I want to throw up,” he said.

The carnage in the French capital — young Parisians gunned down by suicide commandos — has intensified the fears and soul-searching of the West. What was missed, and what can be done?

Robert S. Ford, a former American ambassador to Syria and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said, “I’m not saying bombing attacks are useless, and they probably have some limited value. But we have to know this is not a long-term solution.” Only a political solution that finally incorporates Sunnis into Iraq, he said, will work.

– edited from an article by Ian Fisher in The New York Times, November 18, 2015
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2015

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

ISIS and the curse of the Iraq War

John_Cassidy.png (12332 bytes)John Cassidy

I’ve been reading up recently on the ancient history of Iraq and Syria, a region that is often referred to, not for nothing, as the cradle of civilization. Here is where rapid population growth, urbanization, the specialization of labor, manufacturing, written language, money, mathematics and astronomy all originated.

Today, of course, parts of the region have fallen under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, which, as part of its stated aim to create an Islamic caliphate, is destroying any traces of earlier religions and civilizations. (Evidently, in keeping with its Wahhabi roots, it regards them as antithetical to Islam, despite the fact that they existed thousands of years before the prophet Muhammad was born.) Earlier this year, after occupying Mosul, in northern Iraq, ISIS militants ransacked the city’s central museum, taking drills and sledgehammers to statues and relics from the empires of Akkadia and Assyria, some of which reportedly dated back to the start of the first millennium B.C.

More recently, ISIS forces have extended their campaign against human history to Palmyra, a city built around an oasis in central Syria. It dates to the start of the second millennium B.C., and was later ruled by the Seleucids, who came to power after Alexander the Great’s empire was divided. A week and a half ago, ISIS fighters beheaded Khaled Assad, an eighty-two-year-old scholar who for decades served as Palmyra’s director of antiquities, and as head of its museum. ISIS then suspended his body from a traffic light. So dedicated was Assad to his mission of preserving his city’s history that, according to a report in the Times, he had named a daughter after Queen Zenobia, who ruled Palmyra in the third century A.D.

Then, last week, ISIS forces blew up the Baalshamin Temple, a United Nations World Heritage Site that was first constructed in Palmyra in the second century B.C., and rebuilt in the first century A.D. “The systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history,” Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, the cultural and educational arm of the U.N., said in a statement responding to the destruction. “Such acts are war crimes and their perpetrators must be accountable for their actions.”

A commendable statement, indeed. But what prospect is there that ISIS’s murderous ranks, and their leaders, will be brought to justice — not just for destroying antiquities, of course, but also for rounding up and massacring people living in the territories they’ve occupied, inducing women into sex slavery, killing Western captives and posting the footage online, calling for terrorist attacks in the United States and other countries, and so on. Right now, the chance that ISIS’s leaders will be brought before the International Criminal Court, say, is slim to none.

Despite more than a year of air strikes by the United States and its allies, and despite some important battlefield successes by the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces during that time, ISIS appears to be as strong as ever. Or, at least, that is what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, according to a report published a month ago by the Associated Press. And, this week, the Times revealed that the Pentagon is now investigating whether intelligence officials “skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress.”

Obama Administration officials continue to claim that the policy of air strikes, combined with the deployment of several thousand U.S. soldiers to train Iraq’s army and the supplying of arms to the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria, will eventually bear fruit. But Defense Secretary Ashton Carter conceded that “it’s going take some time.” Assuming so, that means the task of confronting ISIS, and deciding whether to escalate the level of U.S. involvement, will almost certainly fall on the next President.

And what will he or she do? Absent a horrific ISIS-inspired attack on U.S. soil, the likely answer is not much more than Obama is doing. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has publicly backed Obama’s strategy of seeking to “degrade” ISIS’s military capabilities over time. The Republican candidates for President are forever criticizing Obama for not doing enough to tackle ISIS, but when you examine the policy statements of the leading contenders you find few concrete proposals, and a marked reluctance to commit U.S. troops.

Jeb Bush, in a typically bold move, has said that he would defer to the advice of U.S. military commanders. Donald Trump, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most of Iraq’s oil fields are controlled by the government or the Kurds, has said that he would order U.S. forces to bomb them. In speeches , Marco Rubio and Scott Walker both called for more aggressive actions against ISIS, but stopped well short of promising to deploy additional U.S. ground troops in Iran and Syria. Of the seventeen G.O.P. candidates, only two no-hopers — Lindsey Graham and George Pataki — have grasped that particular nettle. And, as you might have guessed, it didn’t help their poll ratings.

What explains the reluctance among politicians to consider confronting, head-on, a movement that has been intent on eradicating ideals that the United States and its allies hold dear? The Iraq War, of course. By destroying the Iraqi state and setting off reverberations across the region that, ultimately, led to a civil war in Syria, the 2003 invasion created the conditions in which a movement like ISIS could thrive. And, by turning public opinion in the United States and other Western countries against anything that even suggests a prolonged military involvement in the Middle East, the war effectively precluded the possibility of a large-scale multinational effort to smash the self-styled caliphate.

To be clear: I’m not calling for a full-scale ground war against ISIS; I’m not calling for anything. At this stage, like many other people, I suspect, I can hardly organize my thoughts about what’s happening in ISIS-held territory, beyond an acute feeling of dread and despondency. Hopefully, the current strategy will work. And, hopefully, the organization’s appeal to disaffected young Muslims around the world will wane. But do I have any real confidence that either of these things will happen? I do not.

Even at the time, the Iraq War seemed like a very bad idea. Twelve years on, it has developed into a wretched curse on the civilizations whose foundations were laid in places like Palmyra and Mosul.

– New Yorker, August 28, 2015
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2015

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Islamic State fights in Syria and Iraq with arms produced worldwide

WASHINGTON — An independent arms monitoring group has collected evidence that fighters in the Middle Eastern extremist group known as the Islamic State, labeled a “network of death” by President Barack Obama, are using weapons and ammunition manufactured in at least 21 different countries, including Russia, China and the United States. Much of the Islamic State’s arms and ammunition were captured on the battlefield, but intelligence reports have suggested that the group’s income from oil sales and other sources is high enough to finance purchases of additional weapons directly from the companies and dealers that routinely profit from strife in the Middle East.

Experts say the fact that the armaments have such disparate sources is a cautionary note as Washington prepares to undertake expanded shipments of military supplies, including small arms, to rebel groups in Syria and to a revived Iraqi army force.

“We faced an enormous [monitoring] challenge when we, in effect, owned Iraq and had many bases where we could do this type of training,” said Joseph Christoff, who directed international affairs and trade issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office between 2000 and 2011, when the GAO repeatedly identified shortcomings in controlling the use of U.S. weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I don’t know how we're going to do it securely in this new program,” he added.

The new data were collected by a three-year-old, London- based group called Conflict Armament Research, which sends investigators into conflict zones to identify the types and origins of weaponry used in the fighting. Its latest report, financed by the European Union, lists the origins of more than 1,700 cartridges collected in July and August in northern Iraq and northern Syria by investigators working alongside Kurdish forces that had fought the forces of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The cartridges they found after four battles were manufactured for machine and submachine guns, rifles and pistols.

Manufacturers in Russia and the former Soviet Union made a total of 492 of the recovered shells, according to the report. Russia has been a major arms supplier to the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, whose forces also have been battling the Islamic State. The presence of such weapons in ISIS’s hands makes clear that its fighters seized substantial stocks not only from Iraqi troops, but from Syrian troops as well.

The next-biggest country of manufacture was China, which manufactured 445 of the cartridges recovered from Islamic State forces. And the third-highest supplier was the United States, with 323. Some of those shells, meant for M16-A4 assault rifles, were made at the U.S. Army’s huge munitions factory in Independence, Mo., the report said. The plant sprawls over nearly 4,000 acres and has recently produced a staggering 4 million rounds of small-caliber ammunition every day, mostly for U.S. forces.

Exemplifying the shifting nature of ownership on a battlefield, the monitoring group reported that many of the Islamic State weapons and armaments it found and examined were later used by Kurdish forces from Iraq and Syria in new fighting. When the investigators reached a Kurdish base in northern Syria on July 13, for example, soldiers paused from digging trenches to show off some of their recently captured bullets. When the documentation was complete, the fighters put the ammunition in a car and whisked it back to the front line.

Over the past decade, the United States spent nearly $30 billion training and equipping Iraqi security forces. A sizable chunk of the small arms and other weapons systems it handed over is now unaccounted for, in the wake of ISIS’s seizure of the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit, as well as surrounding territory. Even at the outset of the U.S. occupation, U.S. commanders on the ground kept sparse records of where U.S.-supplied weapons wound up. A 2007 GAO report said that 190,000 weapons could not be located then.

On September 18, Congress passed a law authorizing the Defense Department not only to re-equip Iraqi forces that lost territory and abandoned their weaponry to ISIS, but also to provide arms to “appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” The law requires the department to develop a plan with the State Department to monitor where the weapons wind up and, eventually, to mitigate their misuse by unauthorized combatants.

The Islamic State has said it welcomes fresh opportunities to get its hands on additional Western-supplied munitions.

“Look how much money America spends to fight Islam, and it ends up just being in our pockets,” says Abu Safiyya, the jubilant narrator of an Islamic State propaganda video uploaded onto YouTube on June 29. Gesturing at a Ford F-350 truck parked in an Iraqi police base captured by the extremist militants over the summer, Saffiya said, “They will lose in Syria also, inshallah [God willing], when they come. We will be waiting for them, inshallah, to take more money from them.”

– edited from McClatchy Tribune News Service, October 6, 2014
PeaceMeal, Jan/February

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

The cost of fighting ISIS: $300,000 an hour

Uri_Friedman.jpg (8243 bytes)Uri Friedman

It’s been 96 days since the United States launched its first airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq; 50 since it expanded that campaign into Syria. And on each one of those days, the U.S. government has spent an average of roughly $8 million, or more than $300,000 an hour, on the operation against the Sunni Muslim extremist group, according to Pentagon officials.

That’s a trivial sum compared with the more than $200 million the U.S. pours each day into its 13-year war in Afghanistan. (The National Priorities Project estimates that the U.S. has now spent more than $1.5 trillion on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against ISIS, since 2001.) But the accounting matters, because it offers clues to understanding the military offensive to which President Obama has committed the country.

On November 11, for instance, Defense News reported that most of the $5.6 billion in additional funding that Obama recently requested from Congress to fight ISIS will go toward training and equipping the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries, operating military aircraft over Syria and Iraq, and transporting troops and materiel through the region. The administration, in other words, is betting billions on a military operation largely predicated on 1) pounding the Islamic State by air and 2) beefing up local forces that can challenge the group on the ground.

The cost for the campaign against ISIS so far, beginning on June 16 when Obama sent 275 troops to defend the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, is more than $1 billion, according to estimates by Defense News. The numbers also serve as a guide to how the campaign ends.

In September, Obama pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, and he recently doubled the number of American soldiers deployed to Iraq in an advisory role, authorizing as many as 3,100 troops. Thus far, his campaign appears to be doing more degrading than destroying. The New York Times reported that the U.S.-led coalition and various forces on the ground have helped halt the Islamic State’s rapid advance in Iraq and Syria, and even reversed some of the group’s territorial gains in Iraq. Airstrikes have also forced the jihadists to ditch their military bases for civilian homes, while depleting ISIS revenues by taking out oil wells and refineries controlled by the group.

But nearly 800 airstrikes into the U.S.-led military operation, ISIS still controls sizable pockets of territory in Syria and Iraq. Strikes have targeted the Islamic State’s leaders and rank-and-file, but foreigners continue to join the group in large numbers, and its fighting force remains formidable.

Top U.S. officials acknowledge that airstrikes can only do so much to counter the Islamic State. “The airstrikes are buying us time,” General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told CNN in late October. It will take several years to “significantly degrade” ISIS, he said, and doing so will depend in great measure on the efforts of local ground forces, such as the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga. “Over time, if that’s not working, then we’re going to have to reassess and we’ll have to decide whether we think it’s worth putting other forces in there, to include U.S. forces,” Odierno added.

That’s a multibillion-dollar “if.” In September the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) estimated the annual costs of America’s campaign against ISIS based on three scenarios of how it will evolve: 1) a low-intensity air campaign; 2) a high-intensity air campaign; and 3) a deployment of 25,000 U.S. combat forces to the region.

Obama has ruled out dispatching U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS, but wars — even limited ones — unfold in unpredictable ways. As the authors of the CSBA’s report write: “The cost estimates presented here highlight the high degree of uncertainty involved in current operations. One source of uncertainty is the desired end states in both Iraq and Syria — i.e., what the United States would like to leave in place if and when ISIL is destroyed. Another source of uncertainty is what will be required of the United States to achieve its desired end state and how long it will take. The former is a matter of strategy while the latter is a matter of tactics and planning — and the enemy has a say in both.”

As the U.S. air campaign continues, and as ISIS fighters melt into their surroundings, the number of targets will likely dwindle even as the enemy remains, weakened but undefeated. What then? How will Obama define the mission to “ultimately destroy” ISIS? Follow the money.

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where his article appeared Nov. 13, 2014, and, lightly edited, was reprinted in Peacemeal, Nov/December 2014.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)