ISIS’s territory is down to less than a single square mile, but the group is far from defeated, the top commander in the Middle East said in what is expected to be his final appearance before lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The militants who remain are “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized” and will represent a “generational problem,” Gen. Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
“We should be clear that what we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground and remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge,” Votel said.
Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters remain scattered across Iraq and Syria, blending in with the local population — ”leaders, fighters and facilitators,” he said.
The general’s grim assessment of the continuing threat posed by the group was a stark contrast to President Trump’s triumphant portrait of the destruction of the caliphate. In December, Trump shocked allies by announcing the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and contending that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria,” an assertion that drew fierce rebuttals even from Republicans on Capitol Hill. (Katie Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, acknowledged before the committee on Thursday that “everybody knows the tweet was somewhat of a surprise.”)
Trump and other senior administration officials have since sought to parse the president’s claim, arguing that the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate had been destroyed, not the group itself. Even on those terms, Trump has occasionally revived the claim, claiming falsely last week that “we just took over 100 percent caliphate.” U.S.-backed forces are still working to clear fighters from the group’s final stronghold in northeastern Syria, a sliver of land that at the height of ISIS’s power was part of a territory the size of Great Britain. The Arab and Kurdish group battling ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are now holding thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families while the U.S. struggles to encourage other countries to repatriate and charge their foreign fighters.
“In my view, this is a serious generational problem that if not handled properly will sow the seeds of future violent extremism,” Votel said.
Last month, Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was not consulted before the president’s snap announcement that the U.S. would be withdrawing from Syria. The decision prompted the protest resignation of then-defense secretary Jim Mattis. Trump has since reversed course somewhat, allowing roughly 400 troops to remain, although the exact number of troops appears fluid.
As Votel prepares to retire next month, he also sought to reassure lawmakers — including a substantial group of freshman members with military and national security experience — that the U.S.’s strategy in Afghanistan is “working.”
“In my view, we have come further in the last six months than we haveanytime in the last 18 years,” Votel said, citing a brief ceasefire over the summer and the ongoing negotiations between U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban. “We are still at the front end of this. I acknowledge that and we have a ways to go, “But the Taliban has come to the table. We've seen Pakistan play a more helpful role in helping that occur.”
“So to me, these are things that we have not seen in the past that we are now seeing.”
But he cautioned that conditions are not yet right for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The The Pentagon is reportedly mulling a plan to draw down about half of the 14,000 troops currently in Afghanistan in the coming months.
“The political conditions, where we are in the reconciliation right now, don’t merit that,” Votel said.
Trump has long expressed ambivalence about the U.S. troop presence in the Middle East. Votel said Thursday that “we’ve not been directed to withdraw, and there are no orders to withdraw anything.”