After ISIS falls, what is the role of the U.S. in the Middle East

By Bonnie Kristian

The Islamic State is losing. It is losing land, including all access to the Syrian-Turkish border and 60 percent of the territory it once controlled. And it is losing money—an estimated 80 percent of the terrorist group’s income has dried up as a shrinking caliphate means declining access to oil wells and tax revenue. Even looting isn’t what it used to be.

That ISIS is losing raises the question of what the United States will do once ISIS has lost. The House Armed Services Committee scheduled testimony on the topic Tuesday, and rightly so: After 14 years of war in Iraq, the end of ISIS offers a welcome opportunity to reevaluate U.S. interests, and therefore goals, in the Levant.

The temptation in Washington will be recommittal, to maintain long-term military intervention in Iraq to solve that country’s political challenges, giving relative priority to nation-building projects while functioning as a permanent subsidy of the Iraqi military. That would be a grave mistake, an ill-considered pledge of participating in the regional cycle of terrorism and sectarian conflict, for it is predicated on a fundamentally unrealistic assumption about what outside forces, even U.S. military action, can achieve.

The trouble is that after ISIS falls, it will not go away, and neither will Iraq’s longstanding ethno-religious conflicts. Post-caliphate Iraq is not a peaceful Iraq. An Iraq in which ISIS controls no territory will still be an Iraq grappling with sectarian violence and terrorism (including, at least for a time, terrorism tied to the ISIS brand); divided by tribal loyalties; and—especially after years of arming uncertain allies and losing weapons to certain enemies—armed to the teeth.

Some surviving ISIS fighters will turn to more traditional tactics of terror now that the caliphate dream is dead. The regional Sunni-Shia-Kurd dynamic of conflict will persist. And just as ISIS manifested in significant part because of the power vacuum caused by the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime, so the fall of ISIS as a territorial player will almost certainly produce a new vacuum that reignites old hostilities and invites the rise of whatever new terror is no doubt already brewing.

This is not to undermine the import of ISIS losing or put a damper on the optimism engendered by the rout of ISIS from Mosul, Iraq, or the group’s forthcoming loss in Raqqa, Syria. But it is to say Washington would be imprudent to move forward as if these wins are the shape of things to come. Perhaps the most serious error available to policymakers at this stage is to proceed on the wildly misguided assumption than because American military intervention can deprive ISIS of territory it can also pacify Iraq. In short, the violence with which Iraq must contend moving forward after ISIS is internal, political, and sectarian. It is neither relevant to American security nor soluble by external military action.

Now is the time to learn the lesson of a decade and a half of failed attempts in the greater Mideast to solve local political problems with external military force. Now is the time to avoid repeating past mistakes of nation-building and instead make an overdue pivot to realistic national security policies that prioritize American defense.

Of course, there is no guarantee such a shift in U.S. strategy—a shift away from reckless interventionism and toward diplomacy, restraint, and regional self-reliance and reconciliation—would lead to immediate stability or an end to terrorism in Iraq. What it would guarantee, however, is that limited U.S. taxpayer resources would be freed up to be used for protecting vital national interests, narrowly defined, rather than strewn about on a costly and often counterproductive errand thousands of miles from our shores.

It would equally give regional powers an incentive to seize the reins of their own futures, a task to which they are uniquely well-suited by virtue of the investment and cultural knowledge proximity brings. And it would give the United States a shot at reinvesting in our own security and prosperity while avoiding further imbroglio abroad.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on October 10, 2017. Read more HERE