If you have read the headlines over the past few weeks, you can be excused for thinking the Islamic State is rampaging its way across Iraq and Syria again. Stories from the Associated Press and CNN, and reports from U.N. monitors largely follow the same script: ISIS is resurgent.
Unfortunately, what makes for exciting click-bait is not the same as sound analysis. These reports fundamentally misunderstand the threat the Islamic State poses to the United States and wrongly suggest that an indefinite U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria is the magic formula for keeping the terrorist group down and out.
This isn’t to say ISIS is down for the count. Its fighters continue to launch attacks against security posts and civilians in Iraq and Syria. The group’s territorial caliphate may have been shattered into a million different pieces, but its 15,000 militants are now preying on targets of opportunity. ISIS never stopped its operations: it simply evolved into a low-level insurgency, employing tactics such as set-piece attacks against Iraqi military bases and assaults designed to intimidate the local population. ISIS claimed to have executed 106 attacks in just six days in December. Farmers have been targeted. Hundreds of acres of crops burned. And shepherds in areas without a heavy security presence have seen their cattle stolen.
Baghdad and Damascus, beset by war, political turmoil, and angry populations, don’t have enough security forces to cover every inch of their countries. All of this has led officials from Germany’s defense minister to Iraq’s own president to raise concerns about ISIS’ resurgence.
None of this activity, however, is particularly surprising—nor should the presence of ISIS attacks be used by Washington as an excuse to maintain thousands of U.S. military personnel on the ground. The governments in the Middle East can manage the local threat ISIS poses right now. Indeed, by keeping thousands of U.S. troops on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, the Trump administration is inadvertently allowing those very same governments to hide behind the United States and ignore their own responsibility to fight the problem.
Much like its forefathers in Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State didn’t rise in a vacuum. The organization is the inevitable product of the political decay, brittle institutions, social convulsion, and economic purgatory that has defined the Middle East for decades. Before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi met his violent demise in the dead of night last October, the former Al-Qaeda religious emir demonstrated that he knew the region’s cleavages better than most of its leaders did. He shrewdly capitalized on Iraq’s corrupt political system and Syria’s civil war to build a network from scratch. ISIS’s strength was less its military capability than its ability to exploit the ineptitude and weakness of the Iraqi and Syrian governments.
Thanks to the successful combination of U.S. strikes from the air and anti-ISIS forces on the ground, the caliphate Baghdadi sought to establish steadily contracted. Last March’s capture of Baghouz, a hamlet in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province, and the surrender of thousands of ISIS fighters brought to a close a four-year military campaign against the organization. Washington’s stated objective of destroying the ISIS caliphate was accomplished, a success that should have led quickly to a U.S. withdrawal.
ISIS itself is still percolating under the surface. The organization as a brand is still alive. It will persist until those who have the largest stake in how the Middle East operates—the people of the Middle East themselves—address the underlying grievances that provided ISIS with the opportunity to grow.
Like terrorist groups throughout history, ISIS survives and thrives when the powers-that-be are manipulative, predatory, and concerned above all else with sustaining their power, privileges, and prerogatives. As long as those grievances fester, it’s only a matter of time until another iteration of ISIS tears the region apart again.
At its core, violent ideologies cannot be stamped out by military might. Military action is at best a Band-Aid, a way to stop the bleeding before you are put on the operating table.
If military action was the solution, ISIS would have been dead and buried long ago.
Tackling terrorism over the long-term requires regional governments to learn from their mistakes. Politicians in the Middle East, not U.S. troops, are ultimately responsible for improving their own countries. Instead of expecting Washington to solve their problems for them, the Middle East needs to look itself in the mirror and finally begin the work its leaders have consistently avoided.