In a recent interview, Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of US Central Command — which oversees military operations from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia — discussed his vision for the Middle East’s future amid various armed conflicts.
He said the new powers granted to the defense secretary allow field commanders fighting Daesh to be “more agile and more responsive to a very complex, developing situation.” Votel discussed how regional politics and local political factors remain a major influencer of military operations against the terrorist group.
He has been operating long enough in the Middle East and Central Asia — including Afghanistan and Iraq — to understand how to fight insurgencies. Votel said US forces have been operating in the region “long enough to know that (extremist) leaders are killed and we’ve killed plenty of them... and that there’s always somebody who’s going to step up into those positions.”
Essentially, he is describing the age-old military conundrum when it comes to counterterror or counterinsurgency operations: Kinetic operations against the leadership network of terror groups offer tactical victory at best, and are not necessarily enough to sustain success.
For instance, Daesh’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), was all but wiped out by 2010 due to a combination of American military operations, support by local Sunni tribal fighters, and the US decision to grant field commanders wide latitude in making local deals to defeat terrorists and co-opt reconcilable insurgents.
This entailed cutting then-Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki out of the loop due to a recognition of his sectarian bias against working with local Sunni Arab tribal fighters partnering with US special forces.
Likewise, Iran-backed militias in Iraq, such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah, were resoundingly defeated by the summer of 2008, and most of their top leadership either killed or captured. But just a few years later these terror groups managed a remarkable resurrection, and the US military is back in familiar territory yet again.
The key now is for the Trump administration and the US military command to take a close look at how the failed policies of the past eight years contributed to the mess we are in today.
One can imagine that avoiding such a cycle is a priority for Votel as he seeks to navigate the tactical military environment in Iraq and Syria, and the strategic political dynamics that will determine whether the personnel and resources expended and sacrificed were worth the effort. He described his concern about Daesh “2.0,” and how “stay-behind elements” of extremist groups can regenerate the network if given the space to do so.
This is what happened in Iraq in 2010. The ISI was able to maintain a small cell of logistical and operational leaders in the remote desert of eastern Syria. Kataeb Hezbollah leaders were able to find refuge in Iran, and eventually returned to Iraq once US forces left.
Votel’s fears could very well manifest themselves sooner than expected. Mosul’s liberation will prove to be a sunk cost if Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is unable to maintain the trust of Sunni Arabs and work closely with Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barazani. The liberation of Raqqa and other towns in eastern Syria from Daesh could well prove to be hollow victories if Iran-backed militias, Kurdish separatists and Syrian regime oppression fill the void.
The key now is for the Trump administration and the US military command to take a close look at how the failed policies of the past eight years contributed to the mess we are in today. Otherwise the fruits of victory against extremist groups will tragically be short-lived.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.