It has been almost five years since the Syrian and Iraqi governments declared victory over the Islamic State group. Whereas Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate once controlled 40% of Iraqi territory, the United States in conjunction with the Iraqi military, Iraqi militias, and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces cooperated to roll the Islamic State back, end its territorial control, and choke out its insurgency.
Stinginess, short-sightedness and neglect on the part of the United States, Europe, and oil-rich Arab countries increasingly risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by enabling the Islamic State’s return.
Consider what is happening in three different regions.
In northeastern Syria’s Al-Hol camp, not far from the Iraqi border, more than 53,000 internally displaced persons remain, and more than half of them are neither Syrian nor Iraqi. While the Syrian Democratic Forces carry out occasional operations to counter Islamic State presence inside the camp, the Islamic State continues to extort money from residents and aid workers.
Turkey and its proxy, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, continue to isolate Syrian Kurds and dry up their financial support. At the same time, various European countries refuse to repatriate Islamic State members resident in al-Hol. These realities combined risk enabling an Islamic State resurrection. Turkey’s promotion of radicalized proxy forces in northern Syria further amplifies the risk, as does and Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish corruption in regions liberated from the Islamic State.
A commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan was one of the few Trump initiatives that U.S. President Joe Biden embraced. The Feb. 29, 2020 accords were less an outline for a comprehensive peace and more a diplomatic fig leaf to provide cover for U.S. exit. The Taliban never fulfilled their supposed commitment to crack down on terrorism and have given al Qaeda leaders a renewed haven.
As important, the notion peddled by Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad that the United States could co-opt the Taliban to fight the Islamic State appears little more than snake oil. The Taliban exert far more energy seeking to suppress Afghan women than they do fighting Islamic State terrorists. Afghanistan is quickly returning to its pre-2001 role as a haven for international terrorism. The only questions are which and how many terrorist groups fill the vacuum.
Terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State group overran Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province in 2020, although this remains largely out of international headlines. Earlier this year, I traveled to Cabo Delgado to observe efforts to secure and reconstruct the region. The Rwandan Defense Force and Rwandan National Police deployed unilaterally at great expense in order to prevent a vacuum from developing in which the Islamic State could establish itself and destabilize nearby countries such as Tanzania.
Unlike the Democratic Republic of Congo, portions of which are also susceptible to the Islamic State, Cabo Delgado is important because it could allow the group to resupply by sea. Indeed, when I looked at captured equipment and literature, there was evidence of material arriving from Mombasa, Karachi, and Mogadishu. The Rwandan deployment was always meant to be a stopgap, rather than a permanent mission. In Kigali, there was hope that the international community would step up to subsidize the deployment. South African and partner contingents are more expensive to maintain, do less, and remain a weak link. The Mozambican government has also failed to fill the vacuum militarily or in terms of government services. To be a weak link, however, is better than to be no link at all. If the United States and the international community do not implement a plan, financial or otherwise, to fill the vacuum, the Islamic State will rebound quickly.
Time is running out, and strategic neglect seems to be the order of the day. Ultimately, the United States and other countries will need to confront the Islamic State’s resurgence. Proaction is cheaper and more effective than reaction. The question is whether the outside world can organize itself to make the right choice.