The rise of ISIS in 2014 drew serious concern from the international community and especially from the Obama administration, which transitioned into the Trump administration before its ISIS strategy could be fully realized. When President Donald Trump claimed that he would develop a plan to defeat ISIS in thirty days, he was widely ridiculed in the media and by the American public. His boast appeared to be yet another example of his proclivity to make self-aggrandizing and boisterous statements that either flirt with the facts or simply do not materialize.
But in Trump’s first year as president, ISIS has lost significant territory, including its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. ISIS’s territorial decline in 2017 has received very little media coverage relative to other issues. It almost feels as if the constant stream of controversies emerging from the Trump White House has absorbed the media’s attention and diverted our focus away from the fight against ISIS, among other stories around the world that might otherwise have merited more consideration. Nevertheless, ISIS has largely gone into retreat during Trump’s tenure and that reality deserves to be examined and commented on.
Trump has, as expected, taken credit for ISIS’s decline. He declared that ISIS had not been deterred earlier because “you didn't have Trump as your president” and that his administration had done “more against ISIS in nine months than the previous administration has done during its whole administration—by far.” In his State of the Union address, Trump asserted that “the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and Syria.” Trump believes that he has fulfilled his campaign pledge to “extinguish ISIS from the face of the earth,” even if took him much longer than thirty days to accomplish that goal.
Although Trump deserves some credit for ISIS’s decline, it is worth noting that his administration has largely continued the policies of the Obama administration, despite Trump’s claims to the contrary. Besides, simply giving credit to Trump or Obama or even the forces battling ISIS on the ground (who actually deserve the credit) diverts attention from the broader picture. ISIS is (or was) more than a functioning military threat: it represents the ongoing ideological threat that Islamic terrorism poses to the rest of Islamic societies and to Western countries. We should be focusing on the long-term menace that Islamic terrorism presents to our way of life, because that truth will most certainly outlive ISIS.
The Obama administration employed a strategy against ISIS that emphasized empowering local allies to fight the ground war at a limited cost to the United States. Trump has taken the same approach while making two alterations. He has increased the ease with which the US military can launch airstrikes against ISIS targets that could cause unintentional civilian casualties, and he has modified airstrike launch procedures to allow military commanders greater authority over when to execute said strikes. Trump’s actions led to a corresponding increase in both airstrikes against ISIS and reported civilian deaths that took place in tandem with ISIS’s steady territorial and military decline in 2017.
Many experts agree that Trump overstated the credit that his administration should take over Obama’s team. His adjustments may have accelerated the pace of ISIS’s decline, but ISIS’s fate was already sealed by the Obama-era policies that Trump inherited. Iraqi lieutenant general Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, who has played a central role in combating ISIS on the ground, said that “there was no difference between the support given by Obama and Trump.” Trump wants to make Americans believe that he has righted the ship in the fight against ISIS because it fits into his narrative of fixing all of Obama’s woes, but ISIS’s case does not fit into that mold—even if he wants it to.
While Trump is not the first US president to take credit for executing a plan made by his predecessor, we should not allow Trump to capture the media’s and the American public’s attention on this issue with his usual self-promoting rhetoric. If we are to give credit to anyone for ISIS’s decline, it should go only secondarily to the broad international coalition, headlined by the United States, that has participated in the campaign against ISIS. Credit should go first and foremost to the forces in Syria and Iraq that have paid—and continue to pay—the blood price that is required to confront ISIS and reclaim the territories it briefly conquered.
But focusing on giving appropriate credit to different parties for helping defeat ISIS causes us to lose grasp of the most important lesson we have to embrace from witnessing the rise of Islamic terrorism amidst years of instability in the Middle East. Ever since the September 11 attacks and then president George Bush’s decision to deploy US forces in the region, the United States and Western civilization as a whole have been embroiled in an ongoing war on terror. Radical Islamic terrorism has taken many forms in this war, from al-Qaeda to ISIS to terror attacks carried out by individuals inspired by such organizations. Terrorists have shown that they can adapt and endure significant setbacks to achieve their aims, no matter how many military victories we might score in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Of course, Trump makes so many ridiculous comments anyway that it’s easy to think his attempts to take credit for ISIS’s decline do not really matter. However, it is important to remember that everything Trump says is discussed and debated with fanatical intensity by the media and the public. The onus is on the media and its consumers to shift emphasis away from who deserves credit for something just because Trump claimed it and towards more realistic, forward-thinking mindsets. We should think optimistically about the current, improved situation regarding ISIS, but we cannot let conversations about taking credit prevent us from discussing the consequences of that situation that we are left with. Our time and energy would be better spent focusing on how we can continue to eliminate ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism than on giving credit for the progress we have made in the last year.
Moreover, military success is not the end of the story here, at least from an American point of view. If consistently successful military endeavors were enough to destroy terror, then we would have already done so—several times over. Islamic terrorism and the dangers it poses to our continued safety will not disappear with ISIS. Dishing out credit to Trump or Obama or anyone else for defeating ISIS for the sake of aggrandizement or media publicity will distract us from realizing that military triumphs against terrorist organizations, while necessary and difficult to achieve, are not going to be sufficient to win the war on terror. In fact, whether or not that war can ever be won remains unknown. In any case, we will definitely not triumph against ideological terror if we stay fixated on distributing credit to the parties involved.
That being said, it is important to note that beyond the war on terror, the Iraqis and Syrians living in territories previously controlled by ISIS are being liberated from a regime that certainly ranks among the world’s most horrible. Military success against ISIS ought not to be the most important takeaway from our point of view, but it is nonetheless vital to their future. In fact, the discussion about who deserves credit for ISIS’s decline discounts the very real struggles and hardships that people have experienced (and might continue to experience) because of the regime.
One would hope that Trump would caution against lavishing praising on anyone for ISIS’s decline when work remains to be done to safeguard America and the rest of the world against the terrorism it perpetuates. Unfortunately, the president does not have that level of self-awareness. All those who have suffered at the hands of ISIS or radical Islamic terrorism in general in the United States, Europe and the Middle East cannot rely on Trump to lead in this manner with his rhetoric and his actions.
Radical Islamic terrorism outlived al-Qaeda when the organization was at its peak. It will survive ISIS as well. If we are to effectively win the ongoing battle we are engaged in against terror, it would behoove us all to refrain from bickering about who deserves the credit for defeating a single manifestation of that terror. Our energies need to be directed towards removing the threat of terrorism from our way of life and from the regions it festers in, not on prematurely giving credit for a job that is not yet done.
The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.