On Tuesday night, President Trump told the American people that the Islamic State has been defeated — that the only thing left is “remnants,” which our allies will destroy. That is less a statement of fact than an expression of his eagerness to go down in history as the president who ended America’s military involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Perhaps Trump thinks these forays have been too expensive and futile, or perhaps, recognizing American fatigue with endless wars, he is simply playing politics ahead of the 2020 elections. Or maybe he thinks this is a war that the regional actors must fight, which would explain his readiness to accept Turkey’s promise that it will finish off the Islamic State in Syria. In any case, the real meaning of the claim that “we have liberated virtually all of that territory” is that Middle Eastern terrorism is no longer a casus belli for the United States.
It’s a hell of a gamble. It’s true that the Islamic State has been expelled from much of the terrain it held in Iraq and Syria. Gone is the caliphate headquartered in Raqqa that Muslims from around the world trekked to Syria to join. But even so diminished, the group is still a potent terrorist organization. It is a germ suppressed by antibiotics — but still alive and ready to infect and kill, if the medicine is cut.
The Islamic State’s battle-hardened fighters are still at large in Syria and Iraq, and ready to pounce, as they did in last month’s attack in the supposedly extremist-free Syrian town of Manbij, killing four American soldiers. (A few weeks earlier, announcing his pullout from Syria, Trump had said the Islamic State was no longer a threat.) In Iraq, the group no longer holds territory, but many of its fighters remain. Others have found their way to Afghanistan — the first wave of foreign fighters to arrive since al-Qaeda lost its redoubt there — where their campaign of terrorism has encouraged the Taliban, too, to step up its attacks, lest they be overshadowed by this Middle East import. As a price for leaving Afghanistan, the Trump administration says the Taliban must finish off the Islamic State. But the Taliban is not the Turkish military, which is trying to fulfill the same role in Syria. The Taliban has a history of falling under the influence of Arab terrorists.