WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – The US-led Coalition against the Islamic State, formally known as Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), affirmed on Tuesday that the terrorist organization remains a significant threat.
Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, the British Deputy Commander of CJTF-OIR, explained in a press briefing from Baghdad that although the Islamic State no longer controls territory, it still has around 10,000 fighters in Iraq.
In Syria, the number is less, “below 10,000,” Ghika said, but in the “thousands.”
Tuesday’s CJTF-OIR press briefing was the first in five months—since mid-December—just before US President Donald Trump declared that the Islamic State had been defeated.
Ghika had important things to say about the threat from the so-called Islamic State, but his message was overshadowed by another controversy. Ghika seemed to understate the heightened threat posed by Iran and its proxies, prompting an unusual correction from CJTF-OIR’s higher command, CENTCOM.
That CJTF-OIR has renewed its briefings, which appears to be a tacit admission that Trump’s earlier claim that the Islamic State had been defeated is simply not sustainable. Senior Kurdish officials have long said as much.
“Daesh foresaw the fall of its physical caliphate, and it has been reorganizing itself into a network of cells,” Ghika told the Pentagon press corps. It is “intent on striking key leaders, village elders, and military personnel.”
In other words, the Islamic State is pursuing a strategy of creating a political vacuum in areas that were liberated from its control, in order to facilitate its return to those areas.
Such a strategy requires an intimate knowledge of local politics and society. It suggests that those directing this campaign of terror are local, as Kurdish officials have also affirmed.
But when asked to elaborate on the composition of the Islamic State—who are its fighters?—Ghika had little to say.
“They are a mixture,” he said, of local men—i.e., from Iraq and Syria—as well as from outside the region, without providing further details.
He did, however, explain that as the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Coalition’s main partner in Syria, closed in on the Islamic State, some fighters were able to escape and cross into Iraq.
“They were primarily Iraqis,” he stated.
In Iraq, the Islamic State has become “particularly virulent” in the provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Diyala, and Anbar provinces, Ghika explained.
He also suggested that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), supported by the coalition, were addressing the danger, “disrupting the network of Daesh cells” across those areas.
That assessment, however, differs sharply from a report of the Lead Inspector General (LIG) for overseas contingency operations. The US Congress created the LIG framework in 2013. It encompasses the work of the Inspectors General for the Defense Department, State Department, and US Agency for International Development (USAID.)
The LIG is required to issue quarterly reports, and its reports provide an unusually unvarnished picture—which, presumably, was Congress’ intent.
In its most recent report, covering January 1 through March 31— the LIG explained that ISF clearance operations had only “marginally” diminished the Islamic State’s ability to act in Iraq, while it noted “corruption continues to be rampant in Iraq’s security institutions and government more broadly,” with negative effects “on counter-ISIS operations.”
The report was also strongly critical of other aspects of Iraqi governance, suggesting that the multiple failures of the Baghdad government were paving the way for significant discontent in the Shia Arab south, as well as contributing to the Islamic State’s resurgence in the Sunni Arab north.
“US Government officials reported increased concern this quarter that high unemployment, corruption, and a failure of the Iraqi government to provide basic services to its citizens are creating conditions for unrest in Iraq’s southern provinces and in Sunni-majority provinces north of Baghdad where ISIS insurgents are most active,” the report stated.
That was the view of both the Defense Department IG, based on CJTF-OIR sources, as well as the State Department IG, based on the accounts of US diplomats in Iraq.
“CJTF-OIR reported to DoD OIG that high unemployment rates and general dissatisfaction with the government in Iraq are providing ISIS with regular recruitment of prospective fighters,” it said.
The State Department “also predicted that ‘mounting frustrations’ with the government and a lack of services—and ‘little likelihood of improvement in the next few months’—will likely lead to political crises both in Basrah and the northern liberated provinces,” the LIG report stated.
“On April 2, a majority of Basrah Provincial Council members voted for it to become an autonomous region,” the report noted, “demonstrating the region’s discontent.”
The report painted a bleak picture, as it continued in that fashion. Funding for reconstruction is inadequate, while Baghdad’s efforts to engage with its oil-rich Arab neighbors to increase trade and investment have, so far, been “without significant success.”
The US embassy in Baghdad “reported that poor delivery of water and electric service and endemic corruption remain unaddressed by Prime Minister [Abdul-Mahdi] and his incomplete cabinet” (Iraq still has no Defense or Interior Minister.)
“As a result, the Embassy projects that Iraq will likely experience crises related to service delivery in summer 2019,” it warned, “which could have serious political consequences because of mounting frustrations with ineffective governance.”
Indeed, Wednesday saw renewed protests in the south against government corruption.
Editing by Nadia Riva