Representational image of Islamic State fighters | Commons
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Last month’s liberation of the final piece of territory that once made up the Islamic State is worthy of celebration. It took the better part of four years, required the determination of many nations, and demanded huge sacrifices from pro-democracy forces on the ground.

But as President Donald Trump thumps his metaphorical chest over the victory, he risks making the same mistake as his predecessors, who were too quick to declare the end of American combat missions in Iraq. Instead of celebrating prematurely, the U.S. must start transitioning from combat to threat management — a subtler task that will require patience, focus, and the continued cooperation of coalition forces.

Having lost its geographical foothold, the Islamic State is in some ways more dangerous than before: Free from governing responsibility, it can focus on more traditional insurgency and terrorism. The group has both the means and the manpower for these tasks; it has already stepped up suicide attacks in Iraq.

As its fighters flee from the liberated territories, moreover, they’ll carry its brand of jihad to other battlefields. Many will join other terrorist groups in lawless lands such as Libya, Mali and Yemen. Those who remain in Syria may join the onetime al-Qaeda affiliates that control Idlib province. Others may focus on exporting terrorism abroad, especially to Europe and Asia. The group claims to have carried out an average of 11 attacks a day in 2018.

The U.S. and its allies have considerable experience in fighting the global forces of jihad. And much progress has been made in disrupting terrorist recruitment and propaganda. But two significant challenges remain.

One is to keep up the military pressure on the Islamic State’s remaining fighters. Trump’s tweets aside, the U.S. needs to avoid an overly hasty withdrawal of its troops. To the contrary, the Pentagon should commit to keeping a sizable special-forces complement in the region and free it from rules of engagement barring offensive operations.

Second, threat management will require some deft diplomacy. Washington and Europe must keep Turkey and the Kurds — who did the heavy lifting against Islamic State — from each other’s throats. In Iraq, the U.S. must pressure the Shiite-dominated government to give the Sunni minority a fair share of political power and economic opportunity to discourage support for Islamist radicalism.

And in Afghanistan, negotiations for the withdrawal of U.S. troops must be predicated on assurances that the Taliban will continue to stamp out the local Islamic State affiliate and guarantee that al-Qaeda will not again find a safe haven. NATO training exercises with Afghan security forces should be expanded until the government can truly maintain order.

None of this will be easy. Successful threat management requires a mix of diplomatic relentlessness, military fortitude, and, above all, a focus on the long term. The other tack — raising the “Mission Accomplished” banner and moving on — will simply increase the cost in lives and treasure down the road.


Also read: Islamic State has collapsed, but the ground is still fertile for a new reign of terror


 

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