Before the bodies in Orlando had time to cool, the right was already claiming that the attack is evidence that ISIS is gaining strength – and of course that Obama has been too “soft” in his approach to the self-proclaimed caliphate. As is so often the case, the opposite is true.
They’re not only wrong because while Omar Mateen “claimed allegiance” to ISIS during the attack, there’s no evidence that he had any operational connection with the group. They’re wrong because ISIS only looked to wreak havoc overseas when it began losing its grip on its “state.” The group launched no attacks against Western targets while it was expanding its territory in Syria and Iraq. This is ISIS’ Plan B.
Shortly after the Paris attacks last December, Robert Pape, an expert on terrorism at the University of Chicago and founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, told me that “the U.S. strategy against ISIS is working and it’s putting enormous pressure on ISIS. It’s a strategy of air and ground power, with the ground power coming from local allies—the Kurds and the Shia in the region, and even some Sunnis who are opposed to ISIS.”
It’s because the strategy is working that ISIS is now desperate, and is shifting its pattern of behavior. In October, ISIS launched only eight suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria, when they normally do 30 to 35 per month, and that’s the same month that they shifted to suicide attacks in Ankara, Turkey, on October 10. Then they downed the Russian plane on October 31, and now the Paris attacks on November 13. As ISIS’ territory has shrunk in Iraq and Syria, it is now clearly shifting its suicide attack resources out of Iraq and Syria, and into Turkey, into killing Russian civilians, and now also into Paris.
That was followed by the attack in San Bernardino on December 2, and the Brussels bombings on March 22 of this year. If evidence emerges that Omar Mateen did have some operational connection with ISIS, then we’ll count Orlando as an act of international terror as well. Meanwhile, deaths from terrorism declined by 13.4 percent worldwide last year, and much of that drop was attributed to declining casualties in Iraq as ISIS lost ground.
At The Federalist, a piece titled, “The Orlando Terrorist Attack Is The Price We Pay For Not Destroying ISIS” laments what the author imagines to be “American nonintervention in the Middle East.” The reality is that we’re bombing the crap out of ISIS, and local ground troops we’ve supplied, working with our special forces, have ISIS on the run. We haven’t yet “destroyed” ISIS because being a superpower isn’t the same as having super powers, but the strategy is working.
In the 22 months between the start of the U.S.-led air campaign and June 1, the coalition launched almost 13,000 airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, according to the Pentagon. Almost 10,000 of them were flown by U.S. pilots. Through May 15, we’d spent $7.5 billion on the campaign.
Last month, Defense Department officials said that ISIS had lost 45 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq, and between 16-20 percent of its territory in Syria.
American Apache gunships entered the fray in Iraq this week, supporting Iraqi troops as they encircled the key oil city of Mosul. Iraqi government forces and militias have laid siege to Fallujah for the past three weeks, and Al Jazeera reports that ISIS fighters are trying to get out of Dodge “by blending in with civilians who have been escaping the besieged city in their thousands in recent days.”
In Syria, there are unconfirmed reports that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike on Sunday (some media outlets reported that he was gravely wounded). Last week, U.S.-backed rebels closed off all roads leading to the northern town of Manbij, a major ISIS stronghold. They now have the town surrounded on three sides. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a coordinated attack by Kurdish and Arab rebels supported by U.S. airpower and special forces made new gains in the Northwest on Saturday, pushing to within ten miles of the city of al-Bab, an ISIS stronghold just east of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, with the help of Russian airpower, troops loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad crossed into the province of Raqqa earlier this month for the first time since ISIS made it their capital in the summer of 2014. ISIS may be uniquely vicious, but they’re not immune to massive military force.
We shouldn’t paint an overly-rosy, Cheney-esque picture of imminent success. It won’t be over by Christmas. U.S. officials have been accused of skewing “intelligence assessments” about the campaign in Iraq “ to provide a more optimistic account of progress,” according to The New York Times.
But they’re clearly on the run. And while the writers at The Federalist lust after sending other people’s kids into the meat-grinder, all of this is in keeping with Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” doctrine. Two protracted conflicts in Muslim-majority countries demonstrated that large numbers of Western ground troops push local populations into the arms of extremists. ISIS, after all, is a direct descendant of al Qaeda in Iraq, which only came into existence in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Eight years of occupation didn’t eradicate them. We created more extremists than we killed. We shouldn’t do more of that.
Terrorism experts I’ve spoken to estimate that it will take between one and three years to “defeat” ISIS – that is, to deprive it of a territorial base. As it loses its grip in Iraq and Syria, we’ll continue to face terrifying attacks. It’s their only plan B. And it’s a price we have to pay to live in an open society – it’s just not possible to harden every “soft” target unless we acquiesce to life under a police state. We can’t guard every disco, or imprison every unstable person who may be lured by ISIS’ propaganda and can get hold of an AR-15.
And while it’s no comfort to the dead, or their loved ones, we should bear in mind that, compared with the people of Iraq and Syria, we’re paying a small price for destabilizing the Middle East. According to the UN, 19,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in terror attacks in 2014 and 2015.
We tried doing stupid shit, and it led to disastrous results across the region and beyond. Not doing stupid shit is working, slowly but surely, so let’s just stick with that.