President Obama’s unfinished war

The prospects of retaking both Mosul and Raqqa by the end of the administration seem remote

Andrew Bowen
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As President Obama’s counter-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk arrives in Jeddah for meetings to follow-up on last week’s summit in Washington, the state of the efforts in the fight against ISIS remains a mixed bag for Washington and the broader 30-plus-member coalition.

On the one hand, ISIS’s territory globally continues to shrink. In Libya, government forces are making significant gains against the group in Sirte. In Iraq, their territory continues to shrink as Iraqi forces make slow, grudging gains to re-take and hold liberated territory (over 50% of Iraqi territory has been recaptured from ISIS since Prime Minister Abadi took office). Last week’s counter-ISIS summit in Washington focused on preparing for the offensive to re-take ISIS’s main stronghold in Iraq, Mosul. Such a recapture of Iraq’s second largest city (while there’s no definitive timeline for its reclamation) would mark a major symbolic turning point in the over two-year-long campaign against ISIS.


On the other hand, ISIS remains a destructive threat to global security. According to the United Nations, during the month of Ramadan, the extremist group conducted or indirectly fomented over 393 attacks in 16 countries. From Nice to Istanbul, ISIS has shown that its ideology has a global audience and resonance and that it can draw on both directly supported fighters or self-radicalized individuals to carry its banner well beyond Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The group also appears well lodged into its stronghold in Raqqa. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice acknowledged last month at a discussion at The Washington Post with David Ignatius that the prospects of retaking both Mosul and Raqqa by the end of the administration seemed remote.

The Washington Summit

Last week’s counter-ISIS summit in Washington, hosted by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, focused predominantly on the prospects of retaking Mosul and its aftermath. While Secretary Carter used the forum as an opportunity to praise the progress so far against ISIS in Iraq, the battle for Mosul looms large and will likely be the most sizeable challenge for the coalition.

US Army General Joe Votel, Commander of US Central Command in an interview with The Wall Street Journal noted, “One of the key things that I took out of the meeting…with respect to Mosul is that we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of preparation necessary to take on an operation like that.” It’s still unclear whether the timeline for retaking Mosul is reasonable and the operation (once launched) could drag into the new US administration.

The prospects of retaking both Mosul and Raqqa by the end of the administration seem remote

Andrew Bowen

Even after the capture of Mosul, the humanitarian challenge that confronts Washington and its global and regional partners is substantial. With a million or so residents, the United Nations has warned that the fall of Mosul could grow to be the largest humanitarian challenge in the world in 2016 with massive casualties and large internal displacement. According to the UN, almost nearly 6 million Iraqis are likely to be displaced by the time Mosul falls. While some Iraqis have resettled, many remain in camps.

Kerry announced Thursday that he had secured $2.1 billion for humanitarian and stabilization support for Iraq as it manages the resettlement and reconstruction of recently liberated areas and on the horizon, Mosul. These pledges will unlikely provide the capacity and the capabilities necessary for Iraq’s government to address the short to medium term challenges of re-integrating these territories back into Iraq and in providing the humanitarian assistance needed to offer recently liberated Iraqis a prosperous future.

Iraq’s fragmentation

While political reconciliation and accommodation was raised during the meetings, the challenges of political reform remain a serious roadblock. It’s frankly more than just returning to the status quo prior to the city’s fall to ISIS in 2014. Even though Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has made limited strives for reform and is a noted break from his predecessor, Nouri Al-Maliki, Baghdad’s government is still predominantly a sectarian-dominated government tightly aligned to Iran.

The political reforms needed to address Sunni grievances haven’t been sufficiently addressed to give these new liberated areas hope that the future will be any different. As long as there’s no alternative political future, ISIS or other extremist groups will find opportunities to take advantage of this disenfranchisement. The employment as well of Shi’a sectarian militias to help regain these territories could further exacerbate tensions (as they already have in the most recent battles for Fallujah and Ramadi). Without such reforms, regional partners will continue to be wary about fully investing in Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts to stabilize Iraq.

The final months

While this summit was largely ceremonial and Washington will continue to press on its current operations in Iraq and Syria with the possibility of recapturing Mosul, the challenge ISIS poses will live on past President Obama. Iraq’s full liberation and stabilization will almost certainly be a challenge President Obama leaves to Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump as she or he enters office in January 2017.

The challenge ISIS poses then will be one that the next President will have to seriously confront in the broader context of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan. President Obama has approached ISIS conveniently at times as an eco-system of its own to avoid entangling himself already further into the broader socio-economic and political challenges that confront the states and societies that are afflicted by this group. Secretary Clinton has shown a demonstrated understanding of the complexities ISIS poses both regionally and globally and has shown a deeper willingness to take more pro-active action than President Obama.

Mr. Trump seems intellectually incapable of grasping the challenge this group poses and equally demonstrates a profound lack of understanding on how to effectively project and use American force to secure and protect the US homeland and its allies. His remarks on accepting the nomination in Cleveland and further to 60 Minutes and The New York Times underscored a man deeply out of his depth to confront this long war ahead.

For Washington’s regional partners, ISIS poses a deepening homeland security challenge and concerted efforts need to be taken now to deny these groups a space to recruit and gain followers. The UAE and Saudi Arabia’s pro-active efforts to counter ISIS’s destructive narrative and ideology have been notable. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have active government centers to counter this group’s extremist ideology in social media. These practices should be more widely employed by regional governments.

Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a columnist for Al Arabiya English and frequent commentator on US national security policy and the Middle East.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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