Don’t let ISIS off the hook

Amid all the talk about the longest government shutdown in history, there’s one national security issue that shouldn’t skip our attention: dealing with the ISIS. Vice President Mike Pence seemed upbeat during his recent talk at the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference at the State Department. “The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence said.

The terrorist group didn’t allow the victory celebration to last long.{mosads}

That same day, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four Americans: two service members, one civilian working with Department of Defense, and one defense contractor. Even if the attack hadn’t occurred, one can’t be sure of ISIS’ annihilation. Inflicting severe damage of lives and territory on ISIS doesn’t mean the group has been defeated. That’s repeating the mistake we’ve made in the past with Al-Qaeda.

Let’s be very clear about this: ISIS is an ideology as much as it is a group with physical attributes. Even if the U.S. eliminated every single fighter in the ISIS ranks, claiming victory over ISIS wouldn’t be prudent. It wouldn’t take much for another extremist to pick up the ideology, rebrand the group, and carry on.

Pence should have been more circumspect. Here are some policy recommendations that might come in handy for the Trump administration.

First, don’t try to defeat ISIS. That may sound odd, but here’s the thing: The terrorist group might be down and out, but it can still cause tons of headaches to U.S. policymakers. The U.S. forces are capable enough to make the group crumble on the battlefield, but would that suffice? No. A terrorist group such as ISIS thrives on the ideology and can run operations without holding any territory. That’s why the danger persists. Employing conventional warfare tactics against a group that infiltrates and intoxicates minds would lead counterterror officials nowhere.

Bottom line: Working toward a territorial victory over ISIS is inherently short-term and prone to disappointment and embarrassments like Pence’s.

Second, U.S. law enforcement agencies should be alert and mindful of your homegrown extremists who not only pose a threat domestically, but who might also be willing to collaborate with ISIS, which — having experienced setbacks on the battlefield — may be tempted to eschew ideology for effect. The enemy of my enemy, etc.

Authorities must be proactive.

Third, the United States needs to ensure it doesn’t inadvertently create a power vacuum in the countries where it has — or recently had — a military presence. Even if the Syrian withdrawal is relatively swift, U.S. policymakers need keep a close eye on the situation at ground. The last thing the United States would want is for ISIS to regroup in the region.

Something similar happened in Iraq when American forces left the country in the lurch almost ten years ago.   

From Syria to Afghanistan, ISIS is desperately eyeing some vacuum to fill. It’s up to the Trump administration to deny the group any chance to regroup.

Whatever mechanism is employed, it’s crucial not to let ISIS off the hook. 

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst who teaches at National Defence University in Islamabad, Pakistan. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times, RealClearDefense, and The Defense Post, the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. You may reach him at

Tags ISIS Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Mike Pence Mike Pence Presidency of Donald Trump Terrorism

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