Battling the Islamic State: U.S. Must Focus on its Own Enemies in Future

The so-called Islamic State is losing ground. The liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s third most populous city, may be the Baghdad government’s next objective.

Yet even as the “caliphate” shrinks in the Middle East, Daesh, as the group also is known, is increasing its murderous attacks on Western civilians. Washington’s intervention actually has endangered Americans.

In contrast to al-Qaeda, which always conducted terrorism, ISIS originally focused on creating a caliphate, or quasi-state. Daesh’s territorial designed conflicted with many nations in the Mideast: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf kingdoms.

The Obama administration did not intervene out of necessity: ISIS ignored America. Moreover, the movement faced enemies which collectively had a million men under arms; several possessed sophisticated air forces.

Washington’s concern for those being killed by the Islamic State was real, but casualties lagged well behind the number of deaths in other lands routinely ignored by the U.S. The administration seemed most motivated by the sadistic murder of two Americans who had been captured by ISIS in Syria. Although barbaric, these acts did not justify intervention in another Mideast war.

Washington took control of the anti-ISIS campaign but waged a surprisingly lackluster effort. The administration recognized that there was no domestic support for ground troops so mixed bombing and drone strikes with support for “moderate” Syrian rebels, who proved to be generally ineffective.

Turkey sought to play the U.S., pushing Washington to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, while tolerating Daesh. The Syrian government attempted to use the specter of the Islamic State to weaken Western support for its overthrow.

Iraq’s Shia-dominated government wanted a bail-out while maintaining sectarian rule. The Sunni Gulf countries expected America to take care of their problems, as usual. Saudi Arabia dragged Washington into a most foolish military diversion, a war with Yemen’s Houthis.

Now ISIS is in retreat—it has lost almost half of the territory it held in Iraq and one-fifth in Syria. But the group remains surprisingly resilient for an increasingly unpopular and only modestly armed group facing a coalition including the U.S., Europe, and most of the Middle East.

Unfortunately, defeat has turned Daesh toward terrorism, including in the West. As was predictable.

After the horrid attacks in Paris late last year, French President Francois Hollande declared that his nation was at war. But it had been bombing ISIS-held territory for 14 months. The only surprise was that it took Daesh so long to retaliate so spectacularly.

Had the U.S. and Europe left the battle to those directly threatened, the latter would have had no choice but to take the lead. And the fight would have been largely contained within the Middle East. The Islamic State would have had to focus on the enemy literally at its gates, rather than its abstract Western enemies afar.

As ISIS recedes Washington should step back. Unfortunately, the administration’s plan to increase U.S. forces by 560 to about 6000 for the coming Mosul assault will tie America more closely to the sectarian government in Baghdad and its close partner, Iran-supported Shia militias which have committed numerous civilian atrocities.

Washington understandably prefers an unsympathetic Iraqi government to a threatening Islamic State. But should be left responsible for its own mistakes and crimes.

Seeking to build up a “moderate” insurgency to battle both Damascus and ISIS has proved to be mostly a fool’s errand. Backing Riyadh in Yemen is a disaster. Saudi Arabia has turned the long-running insurgency into a sectarian conflict, while Yemenis blame America for civilian atrocities committed by the Saudis.

As I wrote in National Interest: “America faces a genuine terrorist threat, though it is largely indigenous, inspired by foreign killers. Alas, the number of terrorists will continue to increase as Washington makes other people’s conflicts its own. The U.S. must learn to focus on its own enemies.”