Once controlling more than 30 percent of Iraq and 35 percent of Syria, ISIS has now lost its grip on Mosul and its hold on Raqqa is slipping away.
But this is far from the end of ISIS. We are now seeing the birth of ISIS 2.0.
As our attention turned to the escalating crisis with North Korea, the United States conducted the first counterterrorism strike in Libya during the Trump administration — the last of which occurred on Jan. 19, just one day before President Trump’s inauguration.
No longer an insurgency bent on holding large swathes of terrain and sway over population in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is returning to its terrorist roots.
And without its literal caliphate, ISIS is privileging its virtual caliphate.
In other words, ISIS will become a more diffuse and clandestine organization, living off of the grievances of disaffected and disenfranchised Sunni populations, the sanctuary of ungoverned territory, and the blow-back from our exclusively kinetic approach.
In fact, the United States’ policy to defeat ISIS continues to be fundamentally flawed in this way.
Both the United States and its counter-ISIS coalition have myopically focused on the military objective of quickly re-taking territory in Syria and Iraq — at the expense of governance and a coherent political context that can sustain the gains made on the ground.
Has U.S. policy been so focused on the battle to re-take territory from ISIS, and arming proxy forces to do the heavy lifting on the ground, that we have lost sight of the strategic context in the long war?
When I traveled to Iraq and the region in 2016, our senior military and diplomatic leaders expressed to me that they were already asking themselves this type of question and contemplating what they could do to limit the role of Shia militias, integrate the Sunni populations in Iraq, and decrease our reliance on Syrian Kurdish forces to re-take Raqqa.
But as we look at how our policy has unfolded over the last year and a half, we have done exactly the opposite.
The influence and role of Shia militias, including those backed by Iran, have only increased. The Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria remain disaffected and disenfranchised. And we have only doubled down on arming and employing the Syrian Kurds as the dominant fighting force to re-take Raqqa.
What’s more, to further complicate the strategic context, Iraqi Kurds have now taken the non-binding, yet provocative, step of holding a referendum on independence, potentially distracting counter-ISIS efforts, further destabilizing Iraqi politics, and provoking counter-productive reactions from regional actors.
Meanwhile, ISIS maintains its international network of cells beyond Syria and Iraq, including Yemen, Afghanistan, the Sinai in Egypt, the Philippines, and Libya.
Which brings us back to the counterterrorism strike in Libya.
The United States cannot have a military-only approach to combat ISIS 2.0. The military can kill ISIS operatives, but it can’t kill an idea.
The United States must make stability within the greater Middle East a strategic focus. We must employ a state-based strategy, focused on reducing competition among states in the region, sovereignty, and functional governance.
We have learned the hard way that the world of virtual caliphates, ungoverned spaces, and dysfunctional governance can and will have a consequential impact on the United States and its interests.
If the United States does not broaden the strategic aperture and focus of U.S. policy in the Middle East, beyond simply re-taking territory from ISIS and counterterrorism strikes, then we may find ourselves having to do Syria and Iraq all over again in the future — perhaps in even more locations.
So, instead, let’s get this right — now.
Alex Gallo is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is a fellow and former deputy director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Alex also served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee where he wrote legislation and conducted oversight of U.S. defense policy in the Middle East region. He is a West Point graduate, combat veteran and graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGalloUSA.