Trump's claims of defeating ISIS roil Congress

Trump's claims of defeating ISIS roil Congress
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In President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE’s telling, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has suffered a 100 percent territorial defeat.

Trump for the past month has adopted the mantra that the militant group has lost its caliphate in the Middle East even though no formal declaration has been made by his own administration, causing consternation among lawmakers and foreign policy experts.

Trump said last Saturday during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that officials would make the announcement “probably today or tomorrow” that “we will actually have 100 percent of the caliphate in Syria.”

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“One hundred percent,” Trump said to applause. “We want to bring our people back home. It's time.”

Those comments came just two days after Trump told troops during a stop at an Alaskan military base that “100 percent” of ISIS’s territory had already been seized.

On Feb. 6, Trump told representatives of the international coalition fighting ISIS the U.S. would announce “sometime probably next week” that “100 percent of the caliphate” has fallen.

“But I want to wait for the official word,” he said at the time. “I don't want to say it too early.”

The string of remarks illustrates Trump’s desire to declare victory on a promise he made during the 2016 election. But the repeated statements have been at odds with the situation on the ground, according to news reports, and they have raised concerns about the U.S.’s commitment to finishing the fight against the radical Islamic group.

Lawmakers in both parties said Trump is mistaken in focusing on a territorial victory because ISIS is shifting its core mission from an insurgency bent on amassing territory to becoming a terrorist group committed to carrying out attacks worldwide.

“He’s looking for his ‘mission accomplished’ moment, and he’s underplaying the threat,” Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine2020 general election debates announced Senators call for Trump administration to testify on Syria Schumer: Transcript 'absolutely validates' Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Va.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of Trump.

Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump declares 'case closed' as text messages raise new questions Top House Democrat: Trump did 'on camera' what Romney warned about GOP senators attack whistleblower's credibility MORE (R-Okla.) said the president was leaving himself exposed to accusations of overpromising and underdelivering.

“I learned a long time ago, never use ‘100 percent,’ and apparently the president didn't learn that same lesson,” he said. “All you have to have is a half of 1 percent and you're a liar.”

The White House declined to comment. A spokesperson for the global coalition fighting ISIS did not respond to a request for comment.

The president has taken particular interest in the military gains against ISIS, contrasting it with what he claims was the situation under former President Obama, whom he once accused of founding the terror group.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey Graham opens door to calling Hunter Biden to testify MORE (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, suggested the concern over Trump’s comments was being overblown.

“It's like 99.9 percent. We're down to a couple blocks,” he said Tuesday when asked about the fight against ISIS. “I think the caliphate's been, for all practical purposes, destroyed. I mean, we're down to a couple blocks. We could take it, but you just don't want to kill innocent civilians.”

ISIS’s diminishing land

ISIS is on the verge of losing the last patch of land it controls: roughly one square mile around the Syrian village of Baghuz near the Iraqi border.

But taking and holding onto territory is a difficult task against an opponent willing to use extreme measures, and U.S.-backed forces have been stuck in an intense battle against ISIS fighters for much of the last month.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, said Sunday “the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon” but added the force was “slowing down the offensive” to protect civilians that it said ISIS fighters were using as human shields. Bali said Tuesday that 3,500 people have been evacuated from the village, including 500 ISIS fighters who surrendered, even as the offensive slowed.

Territorial victory would mark a significant achievement in the anti-ISIS fight that began in 2013, but the U.S. government and regional experts say the group still poses a significant threat in the Middle East and beyond.

A United Nations report published last month estimated ISIS controls between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria, smaller than at its peak but still a significant number. The group has also established footholds in Afghanistan, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, the Philippines, West Africa and elsewhere.

“I just think it’s not true. The evidence strongly indicates the Islamic State has not been defeated. It continues to operate,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who described the battle against the group as “a generational fight.”

Reduced US presence

Despite Trump’s eagerness to declare victory, he has acknowledged the U.S. will have to leave a reduced military presence in Syria to guard against a potential resurgence of ISIS.

NBC News reported on Tuesday that Trump agreed with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Graham, who wrote him a letter urging him to keep a residual force in Syria. The president highlighted a paragraph calling for an “international presence” to “ensure that all of the gains made in Syria are not lost, that ISIS never returns.”

Trump signed the letter and returned it to the members of Congress with a handwritten message: “I agree 100%. All is being done.”

The response came just over two months after Trump announced he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, tweeting shortly afterward, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

Trump’s initial decision helped lead to James MattisJames Norman MattisUS leaves dozens of 'high value' ISIS detainees behind amid Syria retreat: report White House officials stand by Syria withdrawal, sanctions delay amid bipartisan pushback Sunday shows — Officials rush to Trump's defense on Syria, sanctions MORE’s resignation as Defense secretary and triggered fears that ISIS could reclaim territory it lost during its years-long fight against the U.S.-led coalition.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in its worldwide threat assessment released last month that ISIS “will exploit any reduction in [counterterrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities.”

Still, Trump has appeared keyed in on the impending territorial triumph over ISIS. At CPAC, the president said a soldier he called “General Raisin Cane” told him during his December visit to Iraq that the mission could be completed in “one week” using a different approach.

“If you gave us permission, we could hit them from the back, from the side, from all over — from the base that you're right on, right now, sir,” he said, quoting the soldier. “They won't know what the hell hit them, sir.”

Trump’s latest round of comments came after returning from a summit in Vietnam with Kim Jong Un, which failed to produce a nuclear deal with the North Korean leader.

Rebecca Kheel contributed.