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March 10, 2017

Will More American Troops Finally Finish ISIL?

Trump is listening to his military advisers; Obama never did.

In 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood at Mosul’s Great Mosque and declared himself the “caliph,” the ruler of all Muslims. His bold assertion came at a time when the Islamic State had taken the city as part of an offensive that expanded its reach from the center of Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad, with the Syrian city of Raqqa acting as its capital. While it had no set borders, at the time the Islamic State caliphate controlled much of the desert frontier that composes the eastern sections of Syria and northern region of Iraq, with Mosul being its largest population center.

After a long run-up to battle, late last year Iraqi forces — with American logistical assistance — began to retake Mosul, and they now control the eastern half of the city. As the Iraqi regulars work their way westward, American observers are beginning to feel optimistic that Mosul will soon fall. “The game is up,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler. “They have lost this fight and what you’re seeing now is a delaying action.” Mosul’s capture would effectively wipe out the Iraqi portion of the Islamic State, leaving Raqqa as their last, most heavily fortified stronghold.

That battle for Raqqa may be joined by a limited number of American troops. In a drastic departure from Barack Obama’s methods of political agenda first, last and always, Donald Trump is deferring more to his military experts in the field. They’ve already made one key strategic decision in preparation for taking the Syrian city and are weighing the benefits of a second.

Currently underway is the introduction of a “couple hundred” Marines to the region surrounding Raqqa, in order to pre-position heavy artillery assets. Those Marines don’t count against the Obama administration’s limit of 503 total troops in Syria, because they’re only there on a temporary basis. That arbitrary limit may be the reason for considering the second strategic move: placing about 1,000 troops in Kuwait as a reserve force that can rotate in and out of the region as needed.

A strategic move that’s not being considered is a hunt for al-Baghdadi, who has left his Islamic State fighters in the field and is reportedly on the run in northern Iraq, hiding out among Sunni tribal sympathizers in a widespread region of desert along the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. His last public communication, urging the Islamic State irregulars fighting for Mosul not to surrender but to fight to the death, was released in early November, before the election. Yet al-Baghdadi seems somewhat more hesitant to meet his 72 virgins in paradise, apparently preferring to lead from behind.

One thing President Trump may find regarding his vow to defeat the Islamic State, though, is that few of his strategic decisions will escape the notice of the press. For example, the Marines’ entry to Syria was first reported (with great detail) by the Washington Post, an outlet that will certainly make sure all interested parties are aware of any American strategy they learn about. The old admonition that “loose lips sink ships” doesn’t seem to hold any water with the media these days, and apparently there are plenty of unnamed “defense officials” who don’t mind sharing this information.

Also of newfound interest to the press, now that we have a Republican commander in chief, will be the re-introduction of body counts, particularly as the fighting moves from the remoteness of rearward air support and logistics to house-to-house fighting like that in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago. Despite our best efforts to minimize casualties, and despite President Trump’s moving tribute to the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens during his address to a joint session of Congress last week, our jihadist enemies can now count on the American media to exploit our nation’s weak stomach for a bloody and extended asymmetrical fight.

Still, as an entity, the so-called Islamic State will be lucky to make it much beyond the third anniversary of al-Baghdadi’s pronouncement of its establishment. But the impact of the fight to suppress it — as the latest phase of a generation-long foray into the Middle East that began with Desert Storm a quarter-century ago and has continued nearly unabated since the 9/11 attack — will surely affect our foreign policy for decades.

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