US affirms commitment to fight against ISIS—and reaffirms it after erroneous reports

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a press briefing at the end of a NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting in Brussels, March 24, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a press briefing at the end of a NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting in Brussels, March 24, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - The Biden administration affirmed its continued commitment to the fight against ISIS on Tuesday, as it marked the second anniversary of the territorial defeat of the so-called “caliphate.”

While in Brussels, attending a NATO ministerial conference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement, hailing that anniversary.

“Two years ago, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, together with our local partners”—the Iraqi Security Forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, in Iraq, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria—“liberated all territory controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a major milestone in the effort to ensure the terrorism group’s enduring defeat,” Blinken stated.

“We commend the bravery and sacrifice of the Iraqi Security Forces, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the hard-fought battles against ISIS,” he added. “We continue to work alongside these partner forces to maintain pressure on ISIS remnants.”

“The United States is firmly committed to the Global Coalition and to the lasting defeat of ISIS,” Blinken concluded.

Members of NATO are a significant component of that Coalition, and it is, perhaps, notable that Blinken issued the statement, while meeting with ministers from other NATO states.

Indeed, NATO itself has an “advisory, training and capacity-building mission” in Iraq, which is described on its website. That mission was established in October 2018, and last month, NATO Defense Ministers agreed, at Iraq’s request, to expand it to 4,000 personnel.

Pentagon also Affirms Commitment to fight ISIS

The Pentagon spoke in terms similar to Blinken on Tuesday about its ongoing commitment to the anti-ISIS fight. An Arab journalist, who seemed to want the US to leave, told Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, “I think today is the second anniversary of the end of the territorial control of ISIS, and it happened in Syria.”

“What are you looking for? From the military point of view, from being in Syria, staying in Syria,” the journalist continued, “what is the endgame?”

With no hesitation or ambiguity in his words, Kirby replied, “We still have a presence in Syria to continue to go after ISIS as part of a Coalition effort.”

“ISIS is a greatly diminished organization and a significantly degraded threat,” he continued, and “they don't own anywhere near the territory or have at their disposal the resources that they once had.”

“But they are still there. They still pose a threat,” Kirby said, and “we still believe that mission is valid, two years on.”

Iraq and Syria contrasted with Afghanistan

The significance of the State Department and Pentagon statements about the continued US commitment to the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria is underscored by the contrast with Afghanistan—where there is far more uncertainty.

In 2020, under former President Donald Trump, the US reached an agreement with the Taliban, in which it said it would pull remaining US troops out of Afghanistan by May 1. However, Taliban attacks have not diminished. If anything, they have increased, and the US withdrawal looks uncertain. US President Joe Biden has said that meeting the May 1 deadline would be “tough.”

Afghanistan has become America’s longest war—in sharp contrast to what George W. Bush was told in December 2001, three months after the US intervention there began following the 9/11 attacks.

Bush believed that the US had won in Afghanistan in that short period of time. That is what CENTCOM, under the command of Gen. Tommy Franks, reported. Few have yet to note the enormity of that flawed assessment.

Instead, the war in Afghanistan has dragged on for another two decades, and there is limited US appetite for remaining. The decision to leave by May 1 is under review by the Biden administration, and as Kirby stated on Tuesday, no final decision has been made.

Kirby also revealed that over those past twenty years, the US has spent a very large sum of money—$825 billion—on the Afghan war.

Flawed Report on US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue

Little of the US commitment to continuing the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria was captured in an Associated Press (AP) story, reported out of Baghdad. Rather, it seemed to suggest the reverse: US troops were leaving—a dramatic, but erroneous, narrative.

Under the Trump administration, the US began a “Strategic Dialogue” with Baghdad. Washington aimed to normalize ties with Iraq and establish the same kind of relationship that the US has with other Middle Eastern allies, like Egypt and Jordan.

Read More: The US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue: Good news for the Kurdistan Region

Related to that, the US military mission in Iraq moved toward a focus on training and advising the Iraqi Security Forces and shifted away from a combat mission. As Nicholas Heras, Senior Analyst at Washington’s Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Kurdistan 24, “Training and advising the Iraqi Security Forces is now the key component of the counter-ISIS mission in Iraq.”

“The idea is to build a nationalist, non-sectarian force that can secure Iraq's independence from terrorist organizations and foreign interference,” he explained.

Nonetheless, Tuesday’s AP report began, “The Biden administration is set to resume strategic talks with Iraqi officials next month on the withdrawal of remaining US combat forces in the country and other matters related to the bilateral relationship.”

If the US military mission in Iraq is training and advising, what combat forces are there to discuss or withdraw?

An AP correspondent flying with Biden to Ohio on Tuesday aboard Air Force One, told White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, who accompanied Biden, “We’re reporting that Iraq has asked for the start of talks about withdrawing the remaining US troops,” and he asked, “Can you confirm that you’ve received that request? And do you know when those talks will be starting?”

Psaki was unfamiliar with the issue and responded, “I’d have to check with our national security team on an update on that, and DOD as well,” promising to do so after the briefing.

Subsequently, Psaki issued a statement, denying the essence of the AP report, even as she did affirm that the US and Iraq would hold another session of the Strategic Dialogue next month.

"This will be an important opportunity to discuss our mutual interests across a range of fields from security to culture, trade, and climate,” Psaki said.

And, significantly, she added, “The meetings will further clarify that Coalition forces are in Iraq solely for the purpose of training and advising Iraqi forces to ensure that ISIS cannot reconstitute.”

Reuters reported Psaki’s statement. AP did not.

Editing by John J. Catherine