The Is­lamic State isn’t go­ing away any­time soon

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Greg Dobbs Greg Dobbs of Ever­green is an au­thor, pub­lic speaker, and for­mer for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for ABC News.

In al­most ev­ery war I ever cov­ered, the side that took con­trol of tra­di­tional sym­bols of power — leg­is­la­tures, lead­ers’ res­i­dences, mil­i­tary bases, print and broad­cast head­quar­ters — held con­trol of govern­ment. But in its war with its many en­e­mies, the Is­lamic State doesn’t have to keep a hold on vi­tal build­ings, as long as it has a hold on the hu­man mind.

That’s why it might be mis­lead­ing to be cheered by The Den­ver Post’s hope­ful head­lines the past week. Like “Iraqi leader de­clares end to IS caliphate” and “Airstrikes in Mo­sul,” which de­scribed the Iraqi army’s “ter­ri­to­rial gains.”

From “Peace is at hand” in Viet­nam to “Mis­sion Ac­com­plished” in Iraq, we know that politi­cians strive to shape the nar­ra­tive. So don’t be fooled. In­stead, be­ware. The Is­lamic State might have to rein­vent it­self. But it isn’t go­ing away.

The fact is, it hasn’t even lost its caliphate, at least not yet, let alone its in­com­pre­hen­si­ble ap­peal to mil­i­tant Mus­lims, or its omi­nous ex­is­tence on ev­ery con­ti­nent. You read that right: ev­ery con­ti­nent (if we can ex­clude An­tar­tica). Last year, ex­perts counted up to two dozen na­tions with some in­car­na­tion of the Is­lamic State: Is­lamic State armies, Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ates, Is­lamic State cells, Is­lamic State wannabes. To­day the es­ti­mates are half-again higher.

A year ago, even be­fore the self-pro­claimed caliphate seemed se­ri­ously threat­ened, one of its lead­ers said in an au­dio mes­sage to its acolytes, “Who­ever thinks that we fight to pro­tect some land or some author­ity, or that vic­tory is mea­sured thereby, has strayed far from the truth. It is the same, whether Al­lah blesses us with con­sol­i­da­tion or we move into the bare open desert, dis­placed and pur­sued.” Chill­ing.

Be­cause the “bare open desert” isn’t sand. It’s Christ­mas par­ties in San Bernardino and night­clubs in Or­lando. It’s bridges in Lon­don, air­ports in Brus­sels, fire­works spec­ta­cles on In­de­pen­dence Day in Nice. As Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion se­nior fel­low Wil­liam McCants puts it, “They are pre­pared to wage a war from the shad­ows.”

West Point’s Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter re­ported last month that in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria, the Is­lamic State re­cently has staged roughly 1,500 at­tacks. And here’s the chiller: in those 16 cities, the Is­lamic State had been de­clared de­feated. Just be­cause the Is­lamic State’s en­e­mies are win­ning some piv­otal bat­tles, it doesn’t mean they’re win­ning the war.

Case in point: the Philip­pines. In late May, rebels var­i­ously de­scribed as “aligned with” and “linked to” the Is­lamic State took con­trol of Marawi City and its 200,000 cit­i­zens. Most peo­ple have fled, but the rebels are still there, fight­ing house-to­house bat­tles with the Philip­pine army. By all ac­counts, even if the army wins, there won’t be much of a city left for cit­i­zens who re­turn.

When a na­tion is un­sta­ble, let alone en­gulfed by con­flict, huge pock­ets of the pop­u­la­tion can lose what­ever pub­lic ser­vices they’ve had. For ex­am­ple, in towns through which war has swept in Iraq and Syria, in Libya and Ye­men and Afghanistan, life for those left is dis­mal: no elec­tric­ity, fuel, bread or wa­ter. No func­tion­ing hos­pi­tals, no func­tion­ing schools. Still a lot of rub­ble. And still a lot of de­com­pos­ing bod­ies buried be­neath it.

You know what they say about a vac­uum. Ideal for a ter­ror group to move in.

I’ve cov­ered it else­where. In the Gaza Strip, the Pales­tinian Author­ity was so cor­rupt, it stopped pro­vid­ing ser­vices for cit­i­zens. Ha­mas filled the void. Ha­mas now holds the power. Like­wise in Le­banon, where the govern­ment pulled out and Hezbol­lah, with Iran’s sup­port, re­placed it. The Is­lamic State knows this play­book. And can still make friends, es­pe­cially if Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has his way and Amer­i­can aid funds are cut.

You will hear that the Is­lamic State is on the run. But don’t be fooled. It is not sub­ject to con­ven­tional mil­i­tary defeat. It can turn defeat into vic­tory. Don’t let the politi­cians, and the gen­er­als, and cer­tainly our in­ven­tive and ig­no­rant pres­i­dent with his “se­cret plan” to defeat the Is­lamic State, tell you oth­er­wise. It is not go­ing away.

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