When the Islamic State’s last sliver of territory fell in Syria on Saturday, the United States had seemingly already moved on, a now-common trend for a country with an attention span that has long since expired over the last 17 years of war.
The five-year-old American intervention against ISIS, known as Operation Inherent Resolve (and also the Counter ISIS campaign under President Obama and the Defeat ISIS campaign under President Trump), formed the connective tissue that tied the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the enduring fight in Afghanistan since 2001 into just another chapter in a very long war, with little more than a shrug from most Americans. The 2,000 troops who wound up in Syria by 2017 were digested without much fanfare.
The war against the Islamic State was branded as an “advise and assist” operation. American and international airpower and coalition advisers would keep American troops away from the front lines, we were told. Under Obama, the Pentagon was loath to say American forces were in combat. “I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said in September 2014. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
The administration’s manufactured talking points fell apart. On Oct. 22, 2015, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died fighting alongside Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. He would be the first of 14 American troops who were killed in combat during the campaign in Iraq, Syria and Jordan. On April 29, 2017, the Army’s First Lt. Weston Lee was killed on a routine patrol in Mosul when he stepped on a roadside bomb unearthed by construction equipment. And on Jan. 16, 2019, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer and Chief Cryptologic Technician Shannon M. Kent, respectively of the Army and the Navy, as well as a civilian Defense Department employee named Scott A. Wirtz and an interpreter named Ghadir Taher, were killed in a suicide-bomb blast in Manbij, Syria.
Everything in 2017 looked almost the same as it did in 2007, only with a smaller number of American troops deployed to Iraq (roughly 5,200) and Syria (around 2,000) and a greater reliance on Iraqi troops and Syrian fighters to do most of the killing and dying. Fight and die they did, by the thousands. Many more civilians died, and millions were displaced. In Syria, a conglomerate of Kurdish and Arab fighters called the Syrian Democratic Forces took back Islamic State territory one mile at a time, fighting doggedly into Raqqa, the extremist group’s capital. In Mosul, the Iraqi military pushed into a city fortified with booby traps, moats, snipers and dump trucks packed with explosives.
In May 2017, I met 19-year-old Pvt. Mohammed Ali al-Shwele. He drove a bulldozer for the Iraqi Army. Each day, as his comrades pushed deeper into Mosul, he would take his bulldozer and drive into the next Islamic State-held street. The only weapon he had was the vehicle’s front plow. “There can be no liberation without the bulldozer,” Shwele told me. In reality, there was no liberation without him and people like him. Less than a week later, his bulldozer was hit and destroyed by a rocket. The flames covered most of his body in third-degree burns.
With the expulsion of the extremist group from its self-proclaimed caliphate, it has aptly shifted back to its insurgent roots, attacking the same people who fled their once-besieged cities in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan, an Islamic State offshoot continues to grow, and in the Philippines, disenfranchised youth in the country’s south are turning to the Islamic State’s black flag in increasing numbers. This week, the main Islamic State branch finally claimed credit for the Oct. 4, 2017, ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead.